The Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met US Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T Esper and Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo in Washington DC on December 18, 2019, for the second annual India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. Prior to this, India and the United States hosted the inaugural 2+2 dialogue on September 6, 2018. Before the latest round of the 2+2, a series of high-level visits took place between the US and India a couple of months leading to the meet – including the 9th DTTI Group meet and the intercessional 2+2 in the Naval Post Graduate School, California, to take forward several bilateral initiatives. The agendas of all these meetings converged in the December 2019 2+2 dialogue in Washington. Both sides concluded that substantive progress had been made after September 2018 inaugural 2+2 meet.
This article seeks to recount this progress and analyze the progress against future expectations from India-US relations.
Among countable deliverables, India and the US concluded the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) during the visit. The ISA will add to existing agreements on the protection of classified military information and is critical for any transfer of technology by a US firm to its Indian partners. The ISA is part of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which India had signed with the US many years ago. The ISA is also crucial from the standpoint of US companies bidding for big-ticket Indian deals to partner Indian private companies in defense production.
Significant progress, since the last 2+2 Dialogue between the two sides, has been regarding the willingness of both sides to operationalize the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which will facilitate encrypted communications between the two armed forces. During the 2+2 meet, India and the US reviewed the steps being taken to operationalize the (COMCASA). Already, some progress had been announced during the visit of Ellen Lord, US Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment, who was in India in October 2019 for the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) discussions. Noting some specific progress made in COMCASA, she said, “we have actually moved forward and in some cases put together some CENTRIXS [Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System] kits.” These kits facilitate encrypted communications between the navies. As such, towards boosting such communications, the US Navy and the Indian Navy signed a loan agreement in March 2019 and installed two Pacific fleet- provided CENTRIXS systems at the Indian Navy headquarters. The two sides are also currently holding discussions to have several more installed in a variety of places. This was confirmed by Ellen Lord during her visit to India.
The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), which is still under discussion, could not be concluded during the 2+2 meet. In so far as BECA is concerned, currently, there are differences over the issue of reciprocity in the exchange of geospatial information, and both sides are trying to resolve them. India considers certain tenets of BECA too intrusive and has declined to sign it in its current form. Discussions to make BECA more conducive to India’s desire is on. The next few meetings on this between the two sides are critical. It is expected that the two sides will hold discussions on the hurdles preventing the two sides from signing the agreement.
The intercessional 2+2 meeting held in August 2019 had proved beneficial for the two sides to discuss ways to advance cooperation on critical diplomatic and security priorities, including the bilateral shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue held on December 18, 2019, provided an opportunity to review the progress and concretize developments in this sector.
Growing cooperation between the two countries, in various sectors pertaining to the Indo-Pacific, are a vital part of US-India relations and finds an important place in bilateral discussions, as it did during the 2+2 meeting between India and the US. The aim was to build on important past developments in cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The ultimate goal of Indo-Pacific cooperation between India and the US is to gain more clarity in their own visions and joint strategies in this vast region. In the meeting, the joint US-India agenda focussed on replicating efforts like replenishing each other’s ships more often in the region. Recently, US Navy ship replenished Indian Navy ship in the South China Sea (USNS Richard E. Byrd, a Clark-class dry cargo and ammunition ship, conducted the RAS with INS Kiltan). Earlier in May 2019, for the first time, the United States Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the Philippine Navy, and the Indian Navy sailed together in the South China Sea, demonstrating a joint presence.
The US has been encouraging India to augment its presence in the South China Sea and smoothen its transition from vision to strategy. Unlike the United States, which conducts regular freedom of navigation operations in the region to underscore excessive maritime claims by regional states, including China, New Delhi primarily conducts port calls and presence operations in the region.
The 2+2 reviewed the progress of the Quad meetings. It was an important meeting following the September 2019 Quad meeting- the four-way dialogue between the US, Japan, India, and Australia – when the members met at the ministerial level for the first time in a “significant elevation” of the dialogue on efforts by the partners countries to advance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Apart from the above issues, Maritime Domain Awareness occupied a big space at the table during the 2+2 dialogue between India and the US. Both countries identified two mid-term projects, including the Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) solution and virtual augmented reality solutions for aircraft maintenance (VAMRAM). In particular, the progress of S2A was reviewed. S2A (Sealink Advanced Analysis), a tactical data link, which is being co-developed by the US and India, will help to analyze large volumes of data that are received as part of Maritime Domain Awareness. This has come up in light of both sides’ realization of the importance of big data analytics in assessing the vast maritime space of the Indo-Pacific.
During the 2+2 Dialogue, India and the US finalized the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) Framework for DTTI. The SOP will serve as the framework for DTTI and allow both sides to reach and document a mutual understanding of how to define and achieve success. At a recently concluded 9th DTTI Group meeting between Subhash Chandra, Secretary, Defence Production, Ministry of Defence, and from the US Department of Defence, Ms. Ellen M Lord, Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment, potential new DTTI projects were identified. During the 9th DTTI Group meeting, the co-chairs from either side signed a Statement of Intent (SOI) that declared their intent “to strengthen our dialogue on defense technology cooperation by pursuing detailed planning and making measurable progress” on several specific DTTI projects including Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) and Air-Launched Small UAS and Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR).
In many ways, the DTTI meeting held weeks before the 2+2 dialogue was an essential precursor to the 2+2 dialogue. Much of the discussion at this DTTI Group Meeting focused on encouraging the US and Indian industry to develop next-generation technologies cooperatively. A few days prior to the meeting, the inaugural session of the DTTI Industry Collaboration Council (DICF) was convened at the Leela Palace Hotel by Mr. Sanjay Jaju, Joint Secretary (Defence Industries Production) and Mr, Scott Baum, Principal Director, Industrial Policy. This forum will be a feature of all future DTTI Group Meetings and will offer an opportunity for the Indian and US industry to be directly involved in DTTI. A document providing a framework for industry interaction with DTTI has also been signed as a follow up to the discussions in the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue held after the meet.
DTTI Group Meetings are held twice a year, alternating between India and the United States, with the aim to bring sustained leadership focus to the bilateral defense trade relationship and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of defense equipment.
The two countries have concluded over USD18 billion dollars in defense trade, and due to significant orders from India, thousands of jobs in the defense sector have been created in the US. Furthermore, now, expectations are high that the next few years will see a multi-fold increase in trade between both countries.
*** The author is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He is Assistant Professor, International Relations at the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata (en lien). He was a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War & and Peace, School of International Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York for the academic year 2015-2016. ***