US’ Pompeo and Esper are flying down for the ‘2+2’ dialogue — something they could have done virtually. Shows depth of Modi-Trump ties

In the dying light of the Donald Trump administration, India is revamping its foreign policy efforts in key recognition of the possibility that in a brave new Biden world it may have to work harder in order to impress its stamp on old and new geographies.

In this direction, Army chief M.M. Naravane is being sent to Nepal to repair brotherly ties between the Indian and Nepalese armies – since time immemorial, the two army chiefs have held honorary ranks of General in the fighting force of the other. Last week, India’s ambassador to Bangladesh, Vikram Doraiswamy, drove from Tripura to Dhaka and went straight to the home of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and paid homage at the site where he was brutally massacred. Earlier this week, Dhaka announced it would not co-fund Chinese trials of the SINOVAC vaccine in Bangladesh. In Afghanistan, ambassador Rudrendra Tandon took over at a time when talks between Kabul and the Taliban are stalled as both negotiate ways to share power. And in the Maldives, a $400-million line of credit was signed to build the largest single-connectivity project in the island nation.

Most significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will share the video screen with Chinese president Xi Jinping next month when both participate in the BRICS summit hosted by Russia. Despite the fact that China may be Enemy Number One these days, India certainly doesn’t want to offend Russian President Vladimir Putin by turning down his invite. New Delhi also needs the Russians, just in case. Alongside its dependence on Russian arms as the Ladakh dispute with China carries into the winter, India needs to keep as many big powers on its side.

But it will be the final Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper waltz with S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh on 26-27 October that will be the cynosure of all eyes. The ‘2+2’ India-US foreign and defence ministers’ conference is taking place in Delhi, bar a last-minute hitch, just one week before the all-important US presidential election on 3 November.

Defence Agreements On Table

There will be several toasts of orange juice and/or Nimbu-Paani at the ‘2+2’, of course, in recognition of one sterling fact: the Modi government has done more to cement the India-US relationship, even as ties with other great powers have subsided and the threat from China has simultaneously risen.

There is talk that the third agreement in the trio of foundational defence agreements, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), will be signed to deepen both defence and strategic ties. Along with the previous two pacts, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the integration of the two defence forces will be significantly advanced.

Now all these pacts are not just about highly advanced weapons systems, owned by two different countries that are now talking to each other, but also presuppose an extraordinary level of political and strategic trust in each other – a bit like sinking into the arms of a beloved person knowing that (s)he is there, no matter what.

Whether or not BECA is signed this month, it’s a sign of how both administrations have pressed closer together in the warm afterglow of the Trump-Modi bromance.

A Common Enemy

All this, despite the fact that Modi’s officials hesitated to shed their officialdom on the trade front, so no trade deal could be signed; despite the bombastic ‘Howdy! Modi’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ events in Houston and Ahmedabad; despite Trump’s criticism of India during the presidential debate; and despite the fact that Indian-Americans are expected to vote in much larger numbers for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, rather than Trump and Pence.

At the end of the day, when the Trump history is written, the India-US relationship may be reduced to a paragraph or two. But in India’s case, the slow but definite turn towards the US has been clearly manufactured, sold and implemented by PM Modi under the cajoling warmth of the Jaishankar establishment

In three weeks time, of course, the world may change – or not quite. The disagreements of the past — notably the time last year when Jaishankar refused to meet a US foreign affairs panel because it included a highly critical voice of the revocation of Jammu & Kashmir’s Article 370 — will likely be papered over by the big, common threat to the free and democratic world. China.

‘2+2’ Is A Sign

None other than US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun realises the world is changing – and his own country with it. In an unusual trip to New Delhi, days after Mike Pompeo met Jaishankar in Tokyo for the Quad meeting, Beigun described the Quad as “Pax Indo-Pacifica”. He insisted the US recognised India’s fundamental need for strategic autonomy and would not pull it into an alliance.

It was a salute to the depth of the India-US relationship that has grown not just amid the colour and the clamour best expressed by its two leaders, but also to the dogged and determined work behind the scenes.

That’s why the ‘2+2’ dialogue on 26-27 October is significant. If all goes well, bar a last-minute hurdle, the fact that Pompeo and Esper are flying halfway across the world for a meeting they may as well have held over video, speaks volumes for the respect they have for India – and vice-versa.

In the dying of the light of the Trump administration, India’s head is surely looking for new ways, from Maldives to Moscow, to diversify and revamp its foreign policy ties. As for its heart, it lost it somewhere to Trump’s fellas. Those were the days, my friend.