India, US to hold 2+2 dialogue on September 6 in New Delhi

The state department said the two defense and foreign ministers will “discuss strengthening strategic, security, and defense cooperation as the United States and India jointly address challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”.

The defense and foreign ministers of India and the United States will finally hold their inaugural 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi on September 6, the US state department announced on Thursday. The meeting, which was already postponed twice, was scheduled to take place on July 6 in Washington but was deferred off by the US.

Announcing the new date and venue — US was to host both the canceled meetings — the state department said the four ministers will “discuss strengthening strategic, security, and defense cooperation as the United States and India jointly address challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”. This will be the first simultaneous meeting of defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj with their US counterparts James Mattis and Mike Pompeo in a format announced a year ago.

The dialogue was agreed upon after a call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump. While Sitharaman and Mattis have met at least twice before — in New Delhi and in Singapore — Swaraj and Pompeo have yet to meet, though they have spoken on the phone. Their last conversation was probably when the secretary of state called her to postpone the July meeting.

At the time, President Trump had asked Pompeo to visit North Korea to carry forward discussions from the Singapore summit on denuclearisation. The first 2+2 meeting, which was set to take place in April, was called off after then secretary of state Rex Tillerson was unexpectedly fired by the president.

While no dates had been settled on, initial plans were to hold the inaugural meeting in New Delhi, if Mattis and Tillerson, who were scheduled to visit India, had coordinated their calendar to be there together. They ended up visiting separately. While the “four principals can discuss anything under the sun when they meet in one room”, an official said on background, some of the issues for discussions have selected themselves – such as US sanctions on Russia and Iran, both of which impact India closely and directly.

India’s plan to purchase Russian S-400 air defense system, for instance, could attract secondary sanctions under a US law that seeks to punish Russia for poll meddling — under the Combatting America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — unless an exception was made, as backed by both Mattis and Pompeo.

Iran sanctions, a part of which will be enforced by the state department, could be the tougher discussion. India has already started cutting exports in anticipation of the November 4 deadline but expects exemptions. The US has indicated it is inclined to grant some on a case-by-case basis. But, as before, these exemptions will be linked to target countries showing the significant reduction, to be certified by the state department.

Trade does not figure among the responsibilities of the four ministers but retaliatory tariffs and related actions triggered by President Trump’s global trade war is a key challenge facing the two countries and might jostle with others for attention, but a resolution is beyond this platform’s purview. Despite growing frictions over trade and other issues such as H-1B visas that Indian IT companies had come to bank upon for their US businesses, these talks take place amid growing strategic alignment and defense ties such as the rechristening of the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.

The two sides will, therefore, also expect to discuss a whole range of issues such as defense purchases — India is keen to buy, for instance, armed Guardian drones — coproduction and co-development, cooperation on counter-terrorism, which is always accorded high priority by the two countries.

And Afghanistan, which received a significant pitch in President Trump’s new South Asia strategy, which had given India a larger role with reconstruction and economic revival. The strategy is undergoing another review and New Delhi would be interested given its longstanding interests in that country and beyond.