Listing diplomatic and strategic interests as top priorities, the Trump administration and the Modi government are going to establish a new dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries. This assumes significance since India and US share similar views on major global challenges such as terrorism, Indo-Pacific region and bilateral defence ties.
This is a shift from the previous US administration’s policies and will replace the existing dialogue format between foreign and commerce ministers of the two countries, which was started by the Obama administration.
The name for the new dialogue format is likely to be “2 by 2”, much like the India-Japan 2+2 dialogue format between foreign and defence secretaries of the two countries. This dialogue puts defence and security issues at the front and centre of the relationship between India and US.
The new mechanism was also discussed between External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a phone conversation Tuesday.
The White House, in a statement about President Donald Trump’s phone call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Independence Day, hinted at the new format: “The leaders resolved to enhance peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region by establishing a new two-by-two ministerial dialogue that will elevate their strategic consultations.” It gave no details of the mechanism.
Top government sources told The Indian Express that a preliminary conversation took place during Modi’s visit to Washington DC this June, and has been worked on in the last month and half.
The idea, sources said, came during the conversation between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his American counterpart Gen (retd) H R McMaster in the early months of the new administration, given the convergence in views on security, defence, regional and global situation. The conversation was followed up by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar who met US officials during his trips in the last six months.
It was felt by both sides that the the current format of the Strategic and Commercial Dialogue is not living up to its promise and potential, despite the efforts to put together scheduled meetings of four top ministers in both governments.
“The thought was that it takes a lot of effort to coordinate the schedules of four leaders — two from each side — but the commercial issues take up too much of space during the meetings, and the strategic and security aspects are not getting enough attention and space in a dedicated manner during the Strategic and Commercial dialogue,” sources said.
In 2015, Modi and Obama had elevated the India-US Strategic Dialogue to a Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, and it was attended by Sushma Swaraj and Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. The last meeting took place in New Delhi on August 30, 2016.
With the change in the US administration, the new format has been looked at and was approved by both governments. According to sources, familiar with this format, this new format has worked well between the US and China — it also moved away from the Strategic and Economic dialogue. “There is so much of common interests between Indian and US officials when it comes to Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. The 2 by 2 format between foreign and defence ministers is just inevitable,” sources said.
“But this does not mean that commercial and economic issues are not important. They will be dealt separately in a dialogue between the two commerce ministers, and will not clog the 2 by 2 dialogue process,” sources said.
There is a possibility of the first meeting of Swaraj and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley with Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis in late September or early October in the US. Much will depend on their schedules.