India and the United States have concluded their third annual 2+2 ministerial dialogue “in person” and sealed the envelope with measurable successes just before the US presidential election.
The American electoral calendar wasn’t allowed to interfere nor did the pandemic force a cancellation. That speaks to the importance both sides attach to maintaining the cycle of this annual high-level exchange. It also highlights the need to put on record the growing convergence on key issues, encouraged in no small part by China’s behaviour. Thanks, Beijing Boys.
But why hold such an important meeting in the last days of a US administration when all major actors may well change? Well, precisely for that reason and to avoid losing a year in transition in case the actors do change. A new administration takes time to settle in, prioritise goals and sharpen focus. Given the current border standoff, the timing of the meeting is to India’s advantage.
A year lost is a year gained by China. The dialogue cements gains of the last four years, making it easier for a new cast to sing from the same hymnal. And be less prone to changing the melody. The more that is signed and sealed, the better.
The lateness of 2+2 meeting was mostly a matter of synchronizing calendars of the four principals, something the diplomats have been attempting since May without success. Thus the late October surprise because sometimes the mundane can be true.
Besides, doing things at the last-minute is a habit of sorts. India takes long to decide any and everything – it took 10 years to conclude the first foundational agreement. And the Americans tend to focus on India only after running through urgent crises. The saying goes India is important but not urgent. But that’s actually good.
Most India-US landmarks were achieved towards the end of a US presidential term, whether it was lifting of some of the 1998 sanctions by Bill Clinton, the coming to fruition of the nuclear deal in 2008 under George W. Bush or the designation of India as a major defence partner in 2016 under Barack Obama. By comparison, things sped up under President Donald Trump.
The India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership is long in name and in content if you cancel the background noise about Trump being “a complete and total disaster” on the international front. As a “Never Trump” South Asia analyst told me, “One good thing is Trump didn’t mess up the India relationship. No repairs have to be done as in the case of South Korea.”
The Indo-US partnership not only survived, it expanded on multiple fronts, including offers on defence equipment previously not on the table. The Indo-Pacific strategy has gone beyond happy talk, the Quad has solidified into a framework to some extent and new ideas and money are on the table. With Australia joining the Malabar exercises next month, India, the “shy” voter, has cast its ballot.
Quad wasn’t even meeting regularly as a group until November 2017 when the six-monthly meetings started which led to the first ministerial in September 2019. Today the (almost) fulsome foursome has an agenda covering maritime security, pandemic response, quality infrastructure, and counterterrorism. That’s not nothing.
It’s also true the Trump Administration wanted to highlight the strides made and push back against the entrenched one-sided DC narrative. Again, why not? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper have aggressively promoted the Quad with the rest. India went along because it saw benefit.
The next US president has a baseline to work with. Hopefully, the Democrats will build on the current Indo-Pacific strategy and promote the Quad should they win the election. India is a rare joint front for Republicans and Democrats albeit with minor differences.
Finally, the signing of BECA or the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on sharing of geospatial data must be noted. It gives Indian defence forces access to the most sophisticated digital database. The US government collects data on just about everything, including the Line of Actual Control and Chinese troop deployments.
The data is updated with “remarkable frequency,” a US analyst told me. “It gives India tremendous advantage from the point of view of surveillance and greater accuracy in flying drones.” You can’t download this off the Internet or deploy Google Earth.
The US has been sharing “complete and important intelligence in real time” through the China crisis even before the BECA was signed, according to an Indian official. Again, that’s not nothing.
Seema Sirohi is a senior journalist, who writes on foreign policy and India’s place in the world.