United States Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in New Delhi on September 6 to kick off the first annual 2+2 India-US dialogue with their counterparts Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj. The US administration has been preoccupied with a host of domestic and foreign policy issues. So the inaugural 2+2 dialogue, initially scheduled to be held in Washington, was postponed twice and relocated to New Delhi.
The 2+2 dialogue comes at a crucial time in regional and global politics. Pakistan has a new prime minister. The Taliban is gaining strength in Afghanistan. It controls, directly or indirectly, an estimated 44 per cent of Afghan territory. The US and China are locked in a trade war. North Korea and Iran remain defiant in the face of US sanctions. Britain and the European Union (EU) are embroiled in acrimonious negotiations over Brexit.
For India, an increasingly turbulent world presents challenges and opportunities. The 2+2 dialogue next week could be an inflection point in the oscillating relationship between Washington and New Delhi. The US needs India to counter the rise of China in the arc from the South China Sea to the Horn of Africa. The US-China confrontation over future economic and military supremacy could well lead to Cold War 2.0.
The US has shut out Chinese companies from access to advanced US technology. Blinking first, Beijing has sought urgent talks in Washington to resolve the trade conflict. The US has the ammunition to win a protracted trade war with China. It can impose punishing tariffs on Chinese exports to the US valued at $507 billion. Beijing can only retaliate with tariffs on US exports to China valued at $137 billion.
For the first time, as the Chinese economy slows down, murmurs of dissent against President Xi Jinping have begun to appear even on tightly controlled Chinese websites. Meanwhile, Malaysia has shelved Chinese projects valued at $22 billion which are part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A key part of the BRI is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Opposition to the BRI is mounting in countries like Sri Lanka because of the high level of debt it imposes. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was blunt in his criticism: “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just, open, free trade. It is all about borrowing too much money which we cannot afford ... So we must find a way to exit these projects and at the lowest cost possible.”
For India, three issues will stand out. First: With a Taliban-leaning prime minister Imran Khan, ensconced in Islamabad, India and the US will have to work on a robust strategy to tackle terror groups operating on Pakistani soil with Pakistani army support. Unlike the previous US administrations, the Trump government has taken a strong stand against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Pompeo, in a phone call, warned Imran recently that Pakistan must tackle “all terrorist” groups. This could include the Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. On his overnight stopover in Islamabad on September 5 en route to New Delhi, Pompeo will deliver that message in person to the Pakistani army chief. The Bush and Obama administrations had focused only on the Taliban and the Haqqani network which attack US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, leaving out the Punjab-based LeT and JeM which are funded and armed by the Pakistani army and aimed at fomenting terror in India.
The US made a historical blunder in 2003. Instead of doubling down on the “shock and awe” war it had unleashed on al-Qaeda after 9/11, then US President George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on the false pretext that Baghdad was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Fifteen years later, the consequences of the US invasion are stark: a fractured Syria, a Kurdish separatist crisis, a denuded Iraq and Islamist terrorism.
As the US diverted troops and resources to the invasion of Iraq, the Taliban regrouped in Afghanistan with Pakistani army support. By the time the US turned its attention back to Afghanistan after killing Saddam Hussein, it was too late. The Taliban are now such a serious military threat that the US has reconciled to the terrorist group sharing power in a future coalition Afghanistan government. The second issue for Sitharaman and Swaraj is achieving a balance in India’s long-term national interest. This involves building a stable relationship with China and cementing the close strategic partnership with the US. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The third issue is the twin points of friction emerging between Washington and New Delhi. India is set on buying the advanced S-400 anti-missile system from Russia. It also imports crude oil from Iran on which US sanctions take final effect in November. India has got a provisional Congressional waiver for the S-400 but Russian weaponry remains a sticking point in closer India-US military ties. The dialogue could bridge the gap in the two countries’ positions.
The problem with Iran, which accounts for a significant amount of Indian crude imports, is more knotty to untangle. India has two months to replace Iranian crude with supplies from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Worse, the TAPI gas pipeline and further development of the Chabahar port in Iran could be collateral damage. At the 2+2 dialogue, Sitharaman and Swaraj have to play their cards well to limit the damage by leveraging India’s position as the balancing pivot between China and the US.