THE MUCH-DELAYED ‘2+2’ format of meetings between India’s Defence and External Affairs ministers and their US counterparts is finally taking place after a number of postponements. The meetings, scheduled for September 6th, are an important step in the evolution of India’s bilateral relations with the US. Ever since the time of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao began reorienting India’s relations with the US in 1990s, the two countries have had robust mechanisms to exchange views and further cooperation at the official level. This has been topped up with occasional political level meetings. While the latter hog all the limelight, much of the spadework in developing relations has been done at the level of officials.
In the last five-odd years, however, it had become increasingly clear that political direction and coordination was essential to further the relationship and not just furthering ties but also avoiding pitfalls. Two examples are pertinent. Last year, the US Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a law designed primarily to counter Russian influence in Eurasia and the Middle East. Even before the law was enacted, India was negotiating the purchase of the S-400 missile system from Moscow. The preliminary inter-governmental agreement was signed in October 2016. The S-400 is one of the most sophisticated air defence systems in production anywhere at the moment. But under CAATSA, any country that engages in ‘major defence’ exchanges with Russia is liable to US sanctions.
The CAATSA-S-400 tangle is precisely the kind of issue that requires handling at the political level. There is a certain logic to how officials work: their ambit is to work within the mandates they have been given by their political authorities. Enlarging or re-negotiating those mandates is a political decision. For example, India now faces a difficult set of trade-offs: should it continue with the purchase of S-400 and risk US sanctions? Or should it renege on the plan to buy these systems and antagonise Russia? Russia after all, is located in the same geographic zone—Eurasia—as India and has been a reliable partner for a very long time. But equally, India needs US help if it is to handle a much bigger threat: China.
These are decisions that require careful thought and calculation of India’s national interests. A thorough discussion with US leaders is essential in charting through these tricky issues.