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International relations

India to play diplomatic balancing act with US

'Two-plus-two' dialogue expected to touch on Iran and Russia sanctions

Indian and U.S. soldiers take part in joint military exercises in September 2016.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and India will hold a meeting of defense and foreign ministers on Thursday in New Delhi, an occasion that will test India's diplomatic skills.

The two countries seek to unite against China's mounting regional influence. At the same time, India is pursuing warmer ties with China and maintains close relationships with U.S. adversaries Iran and Russia, to certain extent.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to India where they will meet with Sushma Swaraj, India's minister of external affairs, and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

This will be the first "two-plus-two" ministerial dialogue between the U.S. and India where the countries' top defense and diplomatic officials meet in the same room. The two sides are expected to discuss beefed-up security cooperation, as well as economic sanctions against Iran and Russia.

Washington's approach to India is colored by the goal of stemming China's growing influence in Asia, particularly its Belt and Road initiative. This follows an announcement by Mattis in May that the U.S.-Pacific Command had changed its name to the Indo-Pacific Command. Last November, the U.S. and India relaunched quadrilateral security talks with Japan and Australia, with the focus on countering China with an Indo-Pacific strategy.

The upcoming dialogue with India lets the U.S. show that it is "seriously interested in enhancing [its] engagement with India on diplomatic and security priorities and on the defense partnership," said K.P. Vijaylakshmi, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The U.S. and India agreed to the talks in June of last year. But they have been put off twice this year due to circumstances in Washington. The U.S. holds two-plus-two meetings with Japan and Australia, but India has never had such a meeting with any country.

China's President Xi Jinping and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in China in June.   © Reuters

"Creating a framework for greater information sharing and interoperability" is one aim of the talks, said a U.S. State Department official. The U.S. and India, along with Japan, conduct the Malabar joint naval exercises every year. The U.S. and Indian air forces also hold drills, though at less regular intervals. Another air exercise will be held as early as this year, according to a Japanese diplomatic source. Japan will participate as an observer.

For the U.S. and India to strengthen their strategic collaboration, the two will likely need to sign three agreements. One is a Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), where the U.S. provides India with communications equipment and technology.

"We've had several rounds of negotiations, and we're encouraged by the progress we've made," said another official at the U.S. State Department. "At the two-plus-two, [COMCASA] will be discussed."

In 2016, the countries signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which allows reciprocal use of bases and stipulates rear-guard support. Another accord, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), would grant mutual access to sensitive geospatial data, but official discussions on BECA have yet to begin.

Meanwhile, India is starting to explore ways to ease tensions with China. In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met informally with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China, in an attempt to thaw relations. However, foreign policy experts view the encounter as an effort to avoid another border stare-down like the one that took place over two and a half months last summer.

The quadrilateral talks will provide a basis for India on security issues even after Wuhan, said one expert.

The White House postponed the talks with India, originally scheduled for April, because Pompeo, freshly nominated to the State Department after the abrupt departure of Rex Tillerson, had yet to receive Senate confirmation. The U.S. offered an alternative arrangement in which Mattis would meet with Sitharaman, but India reportedly refused.

Back then, Modi was preparing to meet Xi in Wuhan, even as New Delhi remained focused on the two-plus-two meeting with America.

The two-plus-two dialogue could yield hotlines between the U.S. and Indian foreign ministers and defense chiefs, according to Indian media. Though the two sides are attempting to deepen their relations, some points of conflict could flare up.

One such area is Russia, which will supply India with S-400 surface-to-air missiles under an agreement that could be struck as early as this year. The U.S. has asked India to back away from the deal due to the sanctions placed on Russia. Washington as a rule punishes corporations that do business with Russia's military and intelligence industries.

The U.S. will have "very significant concerns" if India purchases major new platforms and systems from Russia, Randall Schriver, the Pentagon's highest-ranking official in Asia, told a think tank event last week.

But India has a long history of procuring military equipment from Russia, a pattern that goes back to the Cold War era. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, arms from the Soviet Union and Russia accounted for at least half of India's imports every year through 2017.

"India will demand some waiver on the Russia sanctions, [as] India cannot reduce its defense imports from Russia overnight," said Harsh Pant, director of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

Iranian oil imports are another possible point of contention. After U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement earlier this year, the White House gave countries until Nov. 4 to halt imports of Iranian petroleum.

But India is the second-largest consumer of Iranian oil after China. Without Iran, India will find it hard to secure replacement supplies.

The Trump administration is squeezing Iran economically in a bid to lessen the country's clout in the Middle East. A senior U.S. State Department official said India shares America's concerns about Iran, expressing hope that India would accede to the ban on Iranian crude.

India does not plan to completely shut off imports of Iranian oil, according to a high-level official quoted by Reuters. If India joins China among holdouts, the sanctions on Iran risk becoming ineffective.

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