WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of the U.S.-India two-plus-two ministerial meeting in D.C., senior American officials have expressed optimism over the burgeoning strategic congruency between Washington and New Delhi, even as they acknowledged the growing challenges by China and Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who will meet with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, said on Dec. 13 during an interaction at the Council on Foreign Relations that “next week in Washington D.C., the United States will host the second ever India two-plus-two ministerial, where we will continue to advance our growing partnership as our strategic interests align.”
"As you could see, our resolve to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific (region) is deep-rooted and is only growing stronger in the face of efforts to undermine it," Esper said, and pointed out that the “international rules-based order that America and its allies had worked hard to establish was being tested in new and precarious ways.”
Referring to China, he said, "We have entered a new era of great power competition," and noted, "China first and Russia second are now the department's top priorities. Both nations are rapidly modernizing their armed forces and expanding their capabilities into the space and cyber domains.”
Esper said that through its Belt and Road initiative, China was assiduously expanding its economic ties spanning Asia, Europe and Africa ostensibly without any fanfare, expanding Beijing’s People's Liberation Army's (PLA) “influence and reach.”
On Dec. 18, after Esper meets with Singh at the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting, they will join U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the State Department for the expanded two-plus-two ministerial.
The first two-plus-two dialogue between the Trump administration and the Modi government was held in New Delhi in September 2018.
In his remarks at the CFR, Esper said, “China's brazen efforts to coerce smaller states and assert illegitimate maritime claims threatened its neighbors' sovereignty, undermined the stability of regional markets and increased the risk of conflict.”
Earlier, on Dec. 11, Alice Wells, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said that today India believes that no relationship matters more than its ties with the U.S. when it comes to advancing its economic and strategic interests as well as its global aspirations.
Wells said, "In New Delhi, there's been a growing consensus that no relationship matters more when it comes to advancing India's economic and security interests as well as its global aspirations," and that the two-plus-two dialogue was “the principal mechanism under the Trump administration for translating this strategic convergence into tangible outcomes.”
“It's really contributed to a sea change in recent years and how we do things with India,” she added, particularly since “the outcomes are finally matching the rhetoric.”
Wells who made these observations at an event commemorating the 60th Anniversary of President Eisenhower's Historic Visit to India co-hosted by the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council and The Asia Group, also noted that as the exponential growth of the U.S.-India defense relationship and the consequent enabling agreements would also be catalytic in the envisaged service to service inter-operability between the two countries.
Citing one example, the senior State Department diplomat said “the industrial security agreement” now in its final stage of negotiations, “will allow for new avenues of collaboration between our private sectors on defense researching and co-development, she said. The Industrial Security Agreement has not been signed yet and is in the final stages of being negotiated.
"There is a new comfort level between the diplomats and development experts when it comes to working together, whether it's in the QUAD, whether it's on maritime issues, on joint projects like the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) supported Nepal-India power line, or even in routine consultations in capitals around the world,” Wells said, and noted that regional cooperation is the second-most important aspect of U.S.-India strategic ties and that the QUAD “is an important step forward in aligning like-minded powers behind the principle of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue-- also known as the QUAD formed two-and-a-half years ago--is an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India that is maintained by talks between member countries. ...India, Japan, and the United States continue to hold joint naval exercises through Malabar.
Wells said, “Our increased consultations on regional issues will be a central component of the upcoming two-plus-two where we envision in depth discussions on a range of pressing issues, whether it's Afghanistan, terrorism, regional connectivity, and the Indo-Pacific.”
She said, “At the two-plus-two, we seek to elevate our partnership even further. We're going to increase cooperation on water management, disaster relief, science and technology, peacekeeping judicial cooperation and people to people exchanges, including between innovators and parliamentarians.”
But Wells made clear that issues related to human rights would not be part of the two-plus-two dialogue but acknowledged the contentious Kashmir issue is likely to be touched upon.
“Human rights is not part of this two-plus-two discussion that's taking place next week, although I'm confident that issues on Kashmir and the threat perceptions that India sees will obviously be a part of the agenda,” she said.
Wells said, “We continue to closely monitor the situation in Jammu and Kashmir where we look to the government to take additional steps to release detainees and restore political and economic normalcy that will help to ease local tensions.”
She acknowledged, “No one doubts that India faces a tough security situation given the terror groups that operate across the border, but Kashmiri people are entitled to their full rights under the Indian Constitution, which enshrines the respect for religious freedom of all Indians.”
Wells also spoke to the deep concern in the U.S. Congress the Kashmir issue and the more recent controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), pointing out that “I think it's the intensity, the level of concern within Congress over whether its Kashmir or actions on the CAB demonstrates the genuine concern here in the United States over India's trajectory…and the genuine concern that these kinds of social issues not detract from India's ability to stand for the values of and to stand with us and trying to promote again this sea of free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Later, a senior State Department official briefing Indian correspondents on background, said, "It is those strong people-to-people ties that are a key foundation supporting all of this progress," manifested in the two-plus-two dialogue.
"Those ties were on display when President Trump joined Prime Minister Modi at the Howdy Modi rally in Houston in September,” the official said, and added, “From the four-million strong Indian-American diaspora to 200,000 Indian students on US campuses, our peoples, businesses, and institutions are closely linked, with ties that are only growing stronger.”