Analysing the Fifth Indo-US 2+2 Ministerial

Economic Times, November 25, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta and Sohini Nayak

Foreign ministers of both countries: Antony J. Blinken and Dr S. Jaishankar, and defence ministers, Lloyd J. Austin III and Rajnath Singh, have laid out a strategic blueprint of coalescing in multitudinous domains of converging interests.

The Fifth 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, 2023, between India and the United States of America has successfully captured the curiosity of the global community, ratchetting the bilateral ‘comprehensive global strategic partnership’ between the two large democracies. Foreign ministers of both countries: Antony J. Blinken and Dr S. Jaishankar, and defence ministers, Lloyd J. Austin III and Rajnath Singh, have laid out a strategic blueprint of coalescing in multitudinous domains of converging interests. One hopes that in future, this would become a 3+3 dialogue encompassing the trade ministers as well, as trade is intrinsically linked to both foreign policy and defence policy. And one does need closer cooperation on trade with a reduction in frictions including respect for each others’ policies and practices, but also in defence and foreign affairs. The same logic applies to our dialogues with other strategic partners: two from the Quad: Japan and Australia and with Russia.

As a healthy outcome, we recall a continuous persistence in these parlays reinforcing the notion of a rules based international order, resilience and global peace. With the changing geopolitical and geoeconomics landscape of the recent past, the Indo-Pacific’s increasing salience covered a noteworthy aspect of the meeting, hinting at furthering defence collaborations in the arena, pivoting around the Quad’s vitality and global good. In the area of trade, the Indo Pacific Economic Policy Framework too is moving forward. On foreign policy, we have to deal with various cantankerous issues such as Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas conflicts, and the US respects India’s strategic autonomy.

Being a geostrategic locus of global pre-eminence, this crucial conduit of economic developments is also a theatre of disputes, conflicts, and competition for an imperative influence by both regional as well as extra regional players, demanding increasing attention. In this article, we focus on the recent dialogue between India and the USA. The essence of the annual dialogue to envision a multilateral structure, premised upon the recently held meeting between the US President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June, 2023, that culled out mutual contributions for maintaining a ‘free, open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific’. Synonymously, as the Quad Leader’s Summit, to be hosted by India in 2024, is approaching nearer, as co-implementors, this meeting was also crucial to manifest the ideation and execution of the Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative Pillar on Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport, bringing new relevance to the Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI).

Leading the maritime way
The ocean, as a global common heritage, holds within itself a very potent geostrategic theatre of raising and maneuvering Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), impacting security, economy, environment and trade, countering any revisionist intentions. As the idea of ocean governance has come to occupy an integral part of global diplomacy, its predominant reflection in the 2+2 dialogue is not unexpected. In fact, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (2015) and the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States (February 2022), have been quite articulate on the relevance of this concept as the respective countries’ posture within the Indo-Pacific for a considerable amount of time. The annual apex-level international conference of the Indian Navy – the Indo-Pacific Regional Dialogue (IPRD-2023), having been held in India (15-17 November, 2023) in New Delhi, right after the 2+2 meeting testifies to this fact.

As the group addressed the Navy’s international engagements along with the role of private industries in the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific with maritime trade, what came out was the role of a common stand in maintaining a secured partnership with like-minded partners, undoubtedly as an enabler in the voice of the Global South. At this juncture, comes the relevance of the Indo-US Defence Industrial Cooperation, as a capable deterrent working towards enhancing Indo-Pacific Awareness for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA). As a part of the Information – Decision – Action (IDA) Cycle with consistent assessment of domestic inter-agency and international information sharing, one of the ideas promoted in multilateral setup to bolster Defence modernisation plans seems to be furthered with the consistent bilateral engagement.

The 2+2 Ministerial dialogue has been substantially addressing the role and relevance of varied dialogues and military exercises, with the execution of joint projects under the aegis of the June 2023 Roadmap for US–India Defence Industrial Cooperation with expansion in the fields of space and artificial intelligence (AI). The India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X), associating and encouraging investors to forge private capital and new Education Series for Defence start-ups are important stepping stones, thereby providing technological solutions for ‘shared Defence issues’. This would not only harness the service-to-service understanding but also help in networking with other aligned partners in the Indo-Pacific through mini-lateral or multilateral security efforts like the Quad as well.

To be precise, this association on the lines of Defence has been targeting a China containment strategy. It also banks upon the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ or self-reliant India policy with the ‘Make-in India for the World’ paradigm. For instance, GE Aerospace has agreed to supply F-4141 Engines to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, via an 80 per cent technology transfer, to be used in the next variation of India’s light multirole aircraft. This technological know-how has been described as a ‘trailblazer’ on transforming Defence cooperation and enhancing MDA therein. The same transfer would also be effective in actualising the idea of digital oceans through the holist improvements in Underwater Radiated Noise (URN) Management, Sediment Management. Since marine forces are generally the first responders to any environmental calamity in the sea or counter-terrorism activities we also need submarines.

Even though India has been aiming to consolidate itself as the net security provider in the Indo-Pacific, its feasibility relies on the securitisation of institutions like Quad along with the support of its multilateral partners. Interdependence and reciprocity form the crux of its survival in this maritime underbelly. It is clear that the Indo-Pacific visions of most of the other powers also remain sensitive to a balance between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, the persistence of US–China tensions—primarily involving their economic and technological competition—have come far enough for new regional alignments to gather enough momentum, deserving a serious assessment of their new templates and trends.

In this new trend, what does India visualise itself is the real question. Whether India’s defence negotiations vis-a vis Russia at the same time, through its strategic autonomy policy is a bane in the long run, deserves answers too. Nonetheless, the US-India partnership seem to have moved beyond the uncertainty and are maturing in creating the much ambitious security community that would ensure a safe and accessible Indo-Pacific for all. This would be coupled with open Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC), in turn also having symmetrical and compatible Indo-Pacific Strategy as an influential communication and trade route, replete with its own rich historical identity.

One hopes that on geopolitical front there would be lesser uncertainty, especially after the recent meeting between China’s supremo, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden. On trade policy the joint working group will meet soon and hopefully they will begin a healthy process which can lead to higher trade volumes.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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