India, US to hold 'two plus two' strategic and defence talks for first time in New Delhi

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis (right) will hold talks with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on Sept 6, 2018.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis (right) will hold talks with their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on Sept 6, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Two top Trump administration officials are here this week for crucial talks with their Indian counterparts to improve bilateral ties and look into further areas of cooperation, including a visit by President Donald Trump to India, possibly in January as the chief guest for India's annual Republic Day parade.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo along with Defence Secretary Jim Mattis will hold "two-plus-two talks" on Thursday with their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This will be the first time the two-plus-two talks are taking place.

The US has called the meeting "a major opportunity" to enhance ties with both sides expected to discuss all key defence and strategic issues, including cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and the finalisation of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement or COMCASA, a legal agreement which would facilitate the transfer of high-tech communications security equipment.

Ties between India and the US have remained firm on the back of mutual concerns about the rise of China. Both have grown closer through greater military engagement and have pledged to work closely in the Asia-Pacific region.

For the US, India is also a growing market with US companies keen to tap into it.

Still, a number of recent developments have caused unease in New Delhi.

While Mr Trump has spoken of deepening ties with India, officials here don't quite know what to make of reports in the US media of Mr Trump often imitating Mr Modi's accent.

A Politico report also said that Mr Trump had apparently joked about setting up Mr Modi after his aides told him the Indian Prime Minister is estranged from his wife.

Separately, US sanctions on Russia and Iran have impacted India. India has longstanding ties with Tehran and is a major importer of Iranian oil and the government in New Delhi is now sourcing for the commodity from other countries.

Similarly, US sanctions against Russia has also been a challenge for New Delhi, which has close defence ties with Moscow.

India is currently in talks to acquire five S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia and is seeking a waiver from the US for its acquisition .

"There is a 50-50 chance America might give a waiver for S-400 because there is a provision for a waiver. We have a much weaker case in asking for a waiver for Iran because there is no shortage of alternate sources of oil," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

He added that the two-plus-two talks were important for ties.

"I think it's a very important meeting. They will cover the entire gamut of the relationship and review other issues including global and regional issues."

There are also expectations that trade issues, another irritant in ties, could crop up in discussions.

President Trump decided to impose higher tariffs on steel and aluminium, inviting a retaliatory move from India on US products. But India has postponed imposition of its tariffs leaving room for negotiations.

"Even though this is primarily strategic, I expect trade will come up. Any problem on trade will have an overall effect on ties," said Professor Rajesh Rajagopalan from the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"This is the first time we are doing such a dialogue. It is an indication of the deepening strategic ties that the two countries have," he added.