Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump have moved to insulate the India-US strategic relationship from feuds over trade by instituting a new level of interaction between the principal actors, the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries. In both countries, diplomats hope the mechanism will place the strategic and security relationship between the two countries on centrestage, allowing common challenges — like the crisis spawned by China’s aggression on its peripheries, or challenges to energy security from instability in West Asia — to be addressed irrespective of differences on trade issues. The mechanism — called a 2+2 format — was discussed and agreed upon by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her counterpart, Rex Tillerson, on Tuesday.
The 2+2 format draws on a framework Japan used for its strategic interactions with the US, France, Russia and Australia. From 2010, India and Japan began direct interactions between their foreign and defence secretaries; this was raised to the level of the respective ministers in 2014. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is believed to have begun discussing the idea with his counterpart, General H.R. McMaster, soon after President Trump took office, in an effort to give depth to India-US strategic ties. There is little doubt that 2+2 will provide a powerful new vehicle to discuss issues. But bureaucracies in both countries need to resist being seduced by the idea that process alone can resolve the issues in the relationship.
There are now over 60 India-US bilateral institutions — but there is also mounting ire in Washington DC over what it sees as New Delhi’s chronic failure to use them to their potential. The causes are manifold: Bureaucratic inertia, legal issues, suspicions of US motives, lack of clarity on what India seeks from the strategic relationship. Perhaps more importantly, the existence of a dialogue mechanism will not itself insulate the strategic relationship from the fallout of simmering rows over intellectual property rights and trade — issues President Trump is likely to pursue — unless political leaders are clear on the ends they seek. Prime Minister Modi has gone some distance in meeting President Trump’s concerns, moving forward rapidly on importing shale oil from the US in an effort to narrow the trade deficit. However, there is a deeper problem: The White House’s lack of a clear vision for Asia, and of the US role in it, will dog the India-US relationship, just as it has the superpower’s ties to its other allies in Asia. This problem is one only determined political leadership can resolve, not yet another mechanism.