2+2 format of dialogue offers platform to discuss strategic, security issues together

Australia's foreign and defence ministers, Marise Payne and Peter Dutton, are working towards a ‘2+2’ visit to India next month, as per reports from the Australian media. Although the dates are not confirmed from either side, the 2+2 ministerial meeting is due this year, after the two countries decided to upgrade these talks last year from the level of secretaries to ministers. With the India-Australia 2+2, India will have this interesting ‘pol-mil’ format of bilateral talks with every country in the Quad.

The 2+2 format of dialogue offers a platform for the participating countries to discuss strategic and security issues together, and is indicative of not just a robust partnership, but also of a convergence in vision. India's oldest partner for this dialogue format is Japan since 2010, but this was scaled to ministerial level in 2019, when it had its first talk. The second such meet was to happen this year in Tokyo, but the pandemic has upset scheduling.

India and the US held their first 2+2 dialogue in 2018 when then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US defence secretary Jeff Mattis met their counterparts, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, respectively, in New Delhi. The two countries have had three talks in the format. The last was held in October 2020, and despite the pandemic, it was an in-person one, with Pompeo and Mark Esper visiting New Delhi.

The US has plans of hosting the heads of government of all Quad countries next month, around the time of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. These visits are all dependent on the pandemic situation in various countries. The Quad heads of government had met virtually for the first time last year.

So what is it that makes the 2+2 format such an ‘in thing’ in bilateral relations these days? Putting the two arms, defence and foreign affairs, under one umbrella for dialogue helps bring synergy. The India-US dialogues have deepened the strategic partnership, and India is now signatory to the important US agreements on military cooperation—LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA—which allow sharing of assets (like ports and harbours and logistics), communication and geospatial information. While LEMOA was signed in 2016, the other two foundational pacts of military cooperation were inked during the 2+2 meets.

With the Quad becoming an important grouping and the Indo-Pacific the new theatre of global focus, the significance of having 2+2 meets with each member nation is underscored. India has been cautious of defining its pol-mil ties with any nation from the perspective of the Chinese threat, though Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did mention at the last US-India 2+2 dialogue that India faced reckless aggression on the northern borders. The US is more vocal, and mentioned the Chinese Communist Party's threat to security and freedom as a common subject for discussion.

The shared maritime domain and a common threat to it—China—brings about vast convergence in the military and diplomatic spheres for all the member Quad nations, and it was therefore natural that they would have this format of talks with each other. However, the 2+2 format is not exclusive to the Quad. Japan uses this dialogue mechanism with other countries, too. It has started it with Germany, a country with which it has robust ties and shares a similar vision on the multilateral fora. India and Russia, too, have agreed to holds talks under a similar format.

The 2+2 format clearly shows that for these countries, diplomacy goes hand in hand with security. And when the ministers of the two divisions meet on common ground, 2 plus 2 can equal five.