NEW DELHI, INDIA - The United States and India will try to expand already close defense ties when senior leaders from both countries meet for their first “two plus two” dialogue Thursday in New Delhi.
The world’s two largest democracies, the United States and India, have a lot in common, including a desire to contain China. But the United States takes issue with India buying oil from Iran and its planned acquisition of a Russian missile defense system.
On his way to India, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed he will discuss the Russian missile defense system, but said shared values will allow the two countries to handle any “perturbations in stride, without alarm.”
“Freedom means that at times nations don’t agree with each other. That doesn’t mean we can’t be partners. That doesn’t mean we don’t respect the sovereignty of other nations,” said Mattis.
While India does not recognize unilateral U.S. sanctions and has bristled at what it considers U.S. restraints on its historically neutral stance in world affairs, U.S. and Indian officials have described the relationship as extremely close.
“What we see is a continuing growth of the consultations between us. It’s on a very firm foundation,” Mattis said.
The talks will also include U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Russian missile system
Last week, the Pentagon threatened to impose sanctions on India if it purchases the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. The deal, estimated at around $6 billion, would violate U.S. sanctions placed on Russia last year in response to Moscow’s “destabilizing” activities globally.
While the Trump administration could extend a sanctions waiver to India there’s no guarantee that will happen, the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official, Randall Schriver, said last week.
“We would have very significant concerns if India pursued major new [Russian] platforms and systems,” Schriver said.
Most of India’s weapons are Russian-made, a legacy of India’s Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union.
While U.S. officials say they understand India’s need to keep defense ties with Russia in order to maintain those weapons, they aim to convince India to buy more U.S. weapons in the future.
The United States is currently India’s second-largest weapons supplier.
U.S. officials are signaling more flexibility on India’s purchase of Iranian crude oil.
Starting November 4, any country buying Iranian oil could face financial penalties under sanctions reinstated after the United States unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
But a senior State Department official said sanctions would be imposed on a “case-by-case” basis.
It’s not clear what that means in India’s case, but under the Obama administration India received a sanctions waiver, as long as it substantially reduced its Iranian oil purchases.
India, the second-largest buyer of Iranian oil, will almost certainly not agree to go to zero imports, says Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution.
"They don't want to break ties with Iran, and going to zero would do that,” said Madan.
“It goes back to a fundamental concern India has about the U.S. sanctions regime constraining its options in terms of how to operate in the world, who to buy from,” she adds.
COMCASA deal 'pretty much there'
But the meeting could yield progress on a long-negotiated deal to share sensitive defense equipment. Known as COMCASA it would pave the way for greater collaboration on encrypted defense technology.
Indian media have reported the language of a COMCASA deal has been finalized, and Mattis has indicated they are close.
“I think that we’re pretty much there already on the American side. We’ll see where they’re at,” said Mattis.
India is already designated as a Major U.S. Defense Partner, allowing it to more easily receive American defense technology. This year, India has also been designated a Strategic Trade Authorization-1 country, a status comparable to that of NATO allies.
India could also agree to work more closely on Afghanistan, where the United States has been at war for 17 years. But India’s arch rival, Pakistan, is opposed to Indian military involvement in the conflict.
The “two plus two” meeting had been planned for last April, but was postponed after the departure of former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. It was delayed a second time after Pompeo left in June on a last-minute trip to North Korea.