US and Indian troops conduct joint exercises in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The mystery about the awkward timing of the so-called 2+2 US-Indian security dialogue to be held in New Delhi on Tuesday, October 27, is largely because there is a chicken-and-egg situation about it. 

It is impossible to decide which of two things caused the other one – the mushrooming US-Indian military alliance, or the continuing downhill slide in the India-China relationship. 

There is a curious dialectic at work. On the one hand, the US-Indian military alliance was struggling to take off, notwithstanding the 2008 nuclear deal, but it began accelerating after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.

On the other hand, the Sino-Indian relationship that had acquired a degree of predictability during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule steadily, inexplicably, began degrading under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch and has been reduced to a state of acute rivalry bordering on motiveless malignity.

The paradox lies here – Indians at large have tunnel vision on the mushrooming alliance with the US (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue being its most visible template), while the Americans have a much broader global vision of what they are methodically building with India. 

Within this paradox, there is also an enigma: The Indians at large harbor a notion that their country is cherrypicking out of the American basket of goodies, but the policymakers in New Delhi and the political leadership are well aware that it can only be a pipe dream, since a military alliance with a superpower is a profound, irrevocable commitment. 

American analysts lavishly compliment Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as the mechanic who is assembling the Quad, keeping his head below the parapet.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has been a key player. Photo: AFP/Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency

Some Indian analysts have tended to see the 2+2 on Tuesday, just a week before the November 3 US election, as a rushed event. But they fail to comprehend the great deliberateness about the timing of the 2+2 meeting.

It must be held now, precisely now, before November 3, for the reason that even a week later, a host of uncertainties could arise if a Joe Biden presidency sails into view. As the saying goes, there could be many a slip between the cup and the lip.

And all those nuts and bolts Jaishankar has been screwing into the prototype in his closed garage – the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) being the finishing touch – may start rusting if a cranking of the engine doesn’t happen now. 

After such a long effort, hidden from public view, the engine has been assembled, but in order to get it running, it first needs to be rotated at sufficient speed so the fuel gets pumped up to the cylinders and ignited, and enables the engine to run on its own power.

Any car mechanic would know that cranking the engine is necessary at this point to make sure he can get the engine to power itself.

A defining moment has come for the US-Indian military alliance. The test driver is flying in from the US. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is bringing Defense Secretary Mark Esper for the prestigious assignment to test the efficacy of the US-Indian military alliance. It could not and should not be delayed. 

The Indian side has a problem with Esper, a thorough professional with a remarkable record – an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne (“Screaming Eagles”) who saw active service during Desert Storm and the Gulf War (awarded the Bronze Star); graduated in engineering from the Military Academy at West Point, New York; holds a master’s from Kennedy School at Harvard and a PhD from George Washington University; and was Secretary of the Army before taking over as Pentagon chief. 

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army US Army General Mark Milley, on September 22, 2020, in Washington. Photo: AFP/Olivier Douliery

Esper neither has a counterpart in India’s Ministry of Defense nor any counterpart in Modi’s cabinet who matches up to him in erudition and professional skill. That is what makes the transcript of his “conversation” with the chief executive officer and president of the Atlantic Council, Frederick Kempe, on October 20 – in anticipation of his trip to India – a must-read.

Esper thoughtfully picked as the topic for his discussion “Strengthening US Alliances and Partnerships in an Era of Great-Power Competition” – just what his trip to India is all about.  

Esper gave us a fantastic preview of the roadmap he would be carrying to Delhi to test-drive the engine that Jaishankar assembled. The following elements that Esper highlighted are worth summarizing, largely in his own words: 

The Pentagon’s “No 1 priority” is implementing the US National Defense Strategy, which enumerates that the US is presently “in an area of great-power competition, with our primary competitors being China and Russia.” 

In this context, the Pentagon pursues three “lines of effort: first, improving the lethality and readiness of the [US] force; second, strengthening alliances and building partnerships; and third, reforming the [Defense] Department to redirect our time, money and manpower to our highest priorities.” 

A network of allies and partners is crucial as it “provides us [the US] an asymmetric advantage our adversaries cannot match … China and Russia have probably fewer than 10 allies combined.” 

However, the US cannot rest its oars as “our primary competitors – China and Russia – are rapidly modernizing their armed forces … and shift the balance of power in their favor …and undermine the resilience and cohesion of countries and institutions critical to US security, including NATO.”

The US has cultivated numerous military alliances, like this one with Georgia, and is hoping to expand its alliance with India. Photo: AFP/Vano Shlamov

This will “require us to think and act more strategically and competitively.” The Pentagon has “two recent initiatives that will help us to do just that” – a new Department of Defense Guidance for Development of Alliances and Partnerships (GDAP) and so-called Defense Trade Modernization. 

Together, these two instruments will help the US to “build the capacity and capabilities of like-minded nations and foster interoperability with friendly militaries,” while also providing stimulus to the American arms industry so it “can compete in the global marketplace.” 

The GDAP aims to reorientate the United States’ engagements with allies and partners from the traditional mode of “regional priorities and interests” toward the new era of great-power competition that is global in nature, which requires a “common set of priorities.” 

The Pentagon has a “toolkit” for this purpose, which consists of intensively cultivating senior military officials in foreign militaries and the Foreign Military Sales program. 

FMS is crucial insofar as it helps the US better utilize its premier equipment, technology and systems “as a strategic tool” to help the partners’ war-fighting capabilities as well as build interoperability. In the process, of course, it also keeps the US arms industry innovative and competitive in the global marketplace.  

Besides, the FMS also counters the Chinese and Russian state-owned arms industries, which are fiercely competing “to expand their share of the world’s weapons market,” “attract other countries into their security networks” and frustrate the United States’ efforts to cultivate relationships.

Esper summed up that the 2+2 dialogue in Delhi on Tuesday would reflect “our nations’ ever-increasing convergence on the strategic issues of our time.” He drew satisfaction that the trajectory of military exercises, cyber-defense dialogue and so on through recent months “will strengthen what may become one of the most consequential partnerships of the 21st century.” 

Interestingly, Esper disclosed that this month there was a meeting of the so-called Five Eyes forum – an intelligence grouping of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – where “we talked about the challenges in the Indo-Pacific, and how do we – how do we cooperate together? How do we confront these challenges to sovereignty, to the international rules-based order, to freedom of navigation?

“So you see a lot more closer collaboration come out. And this’ll be reflected in our meetings next week in New Delhi, as well, when we travel there.” 

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.