The fifth 2+2 ministerial dialogue between India and the United States was held in New Delhi on Friday, November 10. This format gets the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries to engage in a wider discussion on bilateral and international issues, cutting across defence, diplomacy and national security.
Their joint statement notes “substantial progress” in transforming relations across multiple domains. Significantly, they met soon after the June 2023 state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US and President Joe Biden’s visit to India in September for the G-20 summit. Thus, the meeting mainly reviewed implementation of earlier decisions rather than new themes. Additionally, the Israel-Hamas hostilities, which started on October 7, presented a new geopolitical context which needed appraisal. Bilaterally, the focus was more on consolidating defence cooperation. A roadmap was discussed for strengthening India’s capabilities, enhancing indigenous defence production, facilitating technology sharing and promoting supply chain resilience. INDUS-X is envisioned to accelerate mutual collaboration of the defence eco-systems of the two nations. In simple language, it is to enable a public sector-dependent India to work with a private sector-dominated American defence industry. In the past, India and the Soviet Union, and Russia after its collapse, had easy systemic match due to state-to-state dealings.
Due to the recent two earlier summit-level meetings, implementation was still incomplete on India acquiring MQ-9B high altitude long-endurance drones and establishing the manufacturing of GE’s F-414 jet fighter engines for India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).
It was noted with satisfaction that bilateral trade this year could cross $200 billion. But the global economic environment being gloomy, especially with two wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza, the joint statement does not reveal what impact the two sides expect on their trade and economic cooperation.
According to the joint statement the two sides also discussed the latest developments in the Indo-Pacific region, Ukraine and the Middle East, and specifically the Gaza war. Interestingly, the positions of India and the US on Israel and Gaza are showing a gradual convergence.
While condemnation of Hamas’ terror attack on October 7 was already a shared theme, India now accepts the US language on supporting Israel and its military action in exercise of self-defence, the release of hostages, observance of international humanitarian law and protection of civilians. India also joins the US “support for humanitarian pauses”. Clearly, India did not insist on a ceasefire. Also, the Indian reiteration of a two-nation solution has been dropped, probably on US insistence, in favour of a “political solution and durable peace”.
A day later, in a rare joint summit of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Riyadh, the principal leaders of the region agreed to condemn Israel and seek an immediate ceasefire. Amongst those attending were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, welcomed back to the Arab League this year. The host, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, affirmed “categorical rejection of the barbaric war against our brothers in Palestine”. He condemned the failure of the UN Security Council to stop the mayhem.
The Iranian President went a step further when he hailed Hamas for taking on Israel and urged the Islamic nations to impose oil and goods sanctions on Israel. The summit allowed Iran to counter the US attempt to isolate it. Mr Raisi’s trip to Saudi Arabia is the first by an Iranian leader in over a decade. Last March, China brokered normalcy between the two nations. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, leader of the most populous Muslim nation, also joined in the chorus for the Israeli military action to be stopped.
Thus, India concurring with the US approach to the Gaza crisis is at variance with at least the public positions that the major Islamic nations are adopting. Even more ironic is the paragraph in the joint statement that there is growing “convergence of strategic interests” between India and the US “as natural and trusted partners with a shared commitment to advance democracy, human rights and pluralism”. Considering the majoritarian trajectory of the BJP’s domestic politics as it wrestles with anti-incumbency in crucial states and at the national level, these words appear incongruous. In the US also, the continuing dominance by former President Donald Trump over the Republican Party, despite his ongoing trial for subverting the US electoral system, casts doubt on the current and future health of American democracy.
The joint statement reiterates US support for India’s ambition to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The US realises that this is probably undoable in the current geopolitical context. In the same paragraph, the US extends support to India’s non-permanent membership bid for 2028-29. When India was seriously pursuing UN Security Council reform and expansion in 2005-08, this columnist had represented India at the G-4 meetings of the four aspirants — Brazil, Germany, India and Japan. It was then the Indian position that as an aspirant for a permanent seat, India should not fight an election for a non-permanent seat. That has obviously been modified since then, perhaps realising that expansion of the UNSC was less likely today than it had appeared then.
The joint statement also reiterates support for “I2U2”, a combination of India and Israel along the UAE and the United States. Also endorsed is the continuing relevance of the “Quad”, coupling Australia, India, Japan and the US. Australian PM Anthony Albanese was in China on a four-day state visit at the beginning of November. This was also an attempt to thaw relations after China listed “14 grievances” as the cause of their discord. US President Joe Biden is also likely to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco later this week, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) conference.
In conclusion, as the Indian government faces domestic electoral tests and tries to maintain the momentum in its ties with the US, Israel, US-aligned Gulf nations and Quad members, there are shifting alliances due to the disruptive impact of a slowing global economy and the Ukraine war, besides the Hamas-Israel confrontation. Time is running out for Israel to achieve its stated objective of decapitating the leadership of Hamas.
India may also discover that the anti-China alliances woven by the US are also losing their glue. The coming year will be a challenging one for India, the extended neighbourhood and the world at large.