Does 2+2=0? Another postponement of dialogue raises questions about Indo-US ties in Trump-Modi era

Source:-Does 2+2=0? Another postponement of dialogue raises questions about Indo-US ties in Trump-Modi era

For the moment 2+2 equals zero, at least when it comes to Indo-US ties. The 2+2 dialogue, a reference to a summit that would involve the foreign and defence ministers of India and their US counterparts, was postponed on Wednesday for the third time. Washington said it had to push the meetings back due to “unavoidable reasons” and that it would work with India to figure out a new date for the dialogue.

The inaugural meeting was originally slated for July 6, in Washington, DC. Now aides from both sides will have to carve out another spot on their calendars for the the ministers to meet. The ostensible reason is that a summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expected in early July for which the Americans will presumably need all hands on deck.

But the timing of the postponement also suggests a serious drift in ties between Washington and New Delhi.

  • India has just announced retaliatory tarrifs after the US unilaterally imposed its own.
  • Unnamed State Department officials in the US told reporters they expect allies to cut trade with Iran down to “zero”.
  • India seems set to buy the S-400 air defence system from Russia, which would attract US sanctions.
  • US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who is visiting India, told reporters she spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about getting India to cut down its oil imports from Iran.

This is the third time that the 2+2 dialogue has been postponed in the last six months. When the dialogue was announced, after Modi’s visit to the US in June 2017, it was meant to be a sign of growing ties with India. The belief was the New Delhi and Washington were both agreed on the idea that India would act as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. Modi seemed more willing than previous Indian leaders to embrace this role, especially because it came around the same time when Indo-China relations were particularly tense because of the Doklam standoff.

Much has changed since then. On the Indian side, Modi seems to have recalculated his position. Once the Doklam incident was resolved, New Delhi has steadily taken steps to reduce tensions with China, including holding an informal summit with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in May. India still seems prepared to play a major role in the Indo-Pacific region, but it pointedly does not want this to be seen as an anti-China position – not least because there is nothing to be gained from tense situations with its bigger northern neighbour in an election year.

But the more significant changes have come from the American side. Trump has taken a with-us-or-against-us tack over the past year, in a manner that has alienated his allies even as he reached out to traditional enemies like North Korea. The decision to pull out of the Iran deal, and then insist that everyone else must do so as well, has put India in a tough spot. The US Congress passage of a law that puts sanctions on those dealing with Russia added to the unhappiness, since it is seen as coming in the way of India’s plans to buy advance S-400 air defence systems from Moscow.

“India follows only UN sanctions and not unilateral sanctions by any country,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in May. “Our foreign policy is not directed to appease or come under any kind of pressure from any country and also it is not reactionary.”

Since then, Trump has also opened a new front in his effort to upset the global order. Insisting that America has got the short end of the stick on most trade deals, the US president has set out to unilaterally impose tariffs on allies – prompting tense scenes at the G7 summit of Western nations. Trump has singled out India in these remarks as well and imposed tariffs, prompting New Delhi to this week announce retaliatory tariffs that will be enforced from August 4.

Unlike Donald Trump’s treatment of his neighbours and historical allies in Europe, none of this represents any sort of significant shift for India, which is actually used to Washington blowing hot and cold depending on its reading of the international climate. But it does make policymaking harder for Modi, who spent much of his first few years leaning heavily into the US relationship, only to see those gains under a cloud now.

India wants to continue engaging with America, both on trade and defence, but without having to fully cut off ties with Iran – its third-largest oil provider – or Russia, with which it has a significant defence relationship. This was relatively easier when even the Americans understood the need for some leeway for their allies. How will Trump’s all-or-nothing approach end up playing out?






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