Substantive results from the first ever “two-plus-two” dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the United States should pierce the political pessimism that had enveloped the narrative on Delhi’s ties with Washington. The signing of a new defence agreement called Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — which has been pending for years — is only one signal that India’s defence establishment is rethinking its entrenched inhibitions about strengthening operational engagement with the American armed forces. After the talks, Delhi acknowledged its shared interests with Washington to the east of India and affirmed strong commitment to work closely with the US for regional security in bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral formats. It also underlined the importance of financial sustainability of infrastructure development in the region.
If India was less hesitant about working with the US in redressing the Asian imbalance resulting from China’s geopolitical assertiveness, Washington seemed more willing to address Delhi’s concerns on Pakistan. It demanded that the Pakistan Army stop using terror proxies and bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks to justice. It also agreed to step up counter-terror cooperation with India. The US is now ready to assist Delhi in the areas of defence innovation, support the development of defence industrial corridors and expand intelligence sharing as part of India’s new designation as a Major Defence Partner. As Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman put it, a “new era in bilateral defence and strategic engagement” has begun.
As they celebrated the long overdue progress on the defence front, the two sides continued to discuss differences over trade, Russia and Iran. As with all of its commercial partners, the US is seeking a reduction of the trade surplus in India’s favour and improved market access. India, on its part, is trying to buy more from America and seeking a liberal regime on H1-B visas. The recent doubts over the relationship were centred around the consequences for India from the US decisions to impose new sanctions against Russia and Iran. Russia is a major strategic partner for India, Delhi would like to keep a working relationship with Iran. The US has softened its position from saying “no waivers” to suggesting that it was open to considering them in the case of India by taking into account the larger imperatives of the bilateral strategic partnership. This is an important reminder that the US, by nature, is open to splitting the difference and finding common ground with its partners. Indian diplomatic tradition, in contrast, has frowned upon deal-making. The successful first round of the “two plus two” talks suggests that Delhi is no longer diffident about transactional diplomacy. This is specially welcome when the man who invented the term “art of the deal”, Donald Trump, is the president of the United States.