At the conclusion of the first ever 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi on Thursday, India and the United States signed a key defence pact that had been under negotiation for some years.
The COMCASA, or Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, would allow greater communications interoperability between the militaries of the two countries. It wasn’t clear if the Indian side received any assurances from the US on New Delhi’s oil imports from Iran, its purchase of a missile system from Russia and its concerns on the proposed changes by the Donald Trump administration to the H1B visa regime.
During the talks, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had with US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, the two countries also decided to set up hotlines between them.
They also discussed the question of India’s pending membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, and cross-border terrorism. The ministers committed to start exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy.
In Mumbai, Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu told a US-India Business Council event that India sought US partnership to boost bilateral trade to $500-600 billion from $125 billion currently.
“We are willing to come out with complete strategy and am sure that the companies from both countries will benefit," Prabhu said. The minister said contentious issues could be resolved through talks to make "India-US partnership greater again", echoing US President Donald Trump's slogan, ‘Let's make US great again’.
Not mentioning the Doklam incident or the Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region that is believed to have convinced India to sign COMCASA, Prabhu said geopolitics has changed so much in the last few months, and geo-economics is also changing rapidly.
"In this context, I see a clear defined role and responsibility for US-India to work together not just for our mutual benefit but also for the benefit of rest of the world," Prabhu said.
In New Delhi, the two sides signed the enabling or foundational COMCASA agreement on the sidelines of the inaugural 2+2 dialogue. It is one of the four foundational agreements the US signs with allies and close partners to allow interoperability between their respective militaries. The COMCASA is an India specific version of the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). According to the India-US joint statement issued after the 2+2 dialogue, the COMCASA “will facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms.”
India has already signed two of the four agreements, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSIMOA) in 2002 and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), in 2016. The last one remaining is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA).
Addressing a joint press conference, Swaraj welcomed the US’ decision to put India in the list of countries eligible for Strategic Trade Authorization Tier-I License Exemption. She noted that there was a growing convergence of views, including on the Indo-Pacific, during the discussion among the four ministers.
"I sought Secretary Pompeo's support to nurture our people-to-people links. Specifically, I conveyed our expectation for a non-discriminatory and predictable approach to the H1B visa regime, given its high impact on innovation, competitiveness and people-to-people partnership, all of which are a vital source of strength for our relationship," Swaraj said.