India should explore expanding scope of 'two plus two' dialogue by including more countries, ministries to meet global challenges

While forging these dialogues, India should not forget Bangladesh as the interests of the two neighbors are increasingly converging in recent times, writes Shubham for South Asia Monitor

Shubham Oct 07, 2021
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India–Australia two plus two ministerial dialogue in New Delhi

India recently hosted the Australian Defense and Foreign Affairs ministers for the inaugural India–Australia two plus two ministerial dialogue in New Delhi. The dialogue makes Australia the third country with whom India has conducted talks under the two-by-two mechanism.

Two plus two ministerial refers to a dialogue mechanism involving two ministers each from the participating nations. The ministers usually are the Defense and the Foreign Minister. The dialogue recognizes the interdependence of strategic and diplomatic domains and thus seeks to install a channel of communication between the two countries’ ministers by not treating the two domains as mutually exclusive. The very aim of the dialogue is to promote synergy between the security and diplomatic efforts of the two states not just bilaterally, but on multilateral fora as well.

The two plus two ministerial dialogue thus provides an avenue to the ministers of the participating nations to engage in an open, frank and comprehensive discussion on key defense and diplomatic issues simultaneously, thereby improving the mutual understanding of capabilities, requirements and sensitivities on key aspects of shared concerns.

The dialogue has been extensively deployed by Japan in its dealings with the US, France, Indonesia, Germany, the UK, Australia and Russia. While India has conducted secretarial ‘two plus two’ with Japan previously, the first ministerial ‘two plus two’ with any nation was held in 2018 between India and the US at New Delhi.

India-US two plus two

India and the US held the inaugural two plus two on September 6, 2018, in New Delhi. The dialogue was fruitful in many senses. The ministers resolved on making the dialogue an annual affair. A decision to establish a direct hotline between the defense and foreign affairs ministers of both countries was also taken. India and the US also signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which enables India to access advanced defense systems and optimally utilize the existing US-origin platforms in its defense cache.

The ministers decided to conduct a tri-services military exercise, which happened in 2019 and was named ‘Tiger Triumph’. With this, the US became only the second nation after Russia with whom India has conducted a tri-services military exercise.

India and the US signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) at the second two plus two dialogue in Washington in 2019, which is a part of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed by India and the US in 2002. The US also announced its commitment to the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019.

Several other Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and agreements in the fields of defense, science and technology, water resources management, space technology and governance were signed. India and the US signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in October 2020,  during the third 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi.

With the signing of the BECA, India and the US completed what is called four foundational agreements that the US inks with its defense partners. The agreements are GSOMIA, Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), COMCASA and BECA and aim to advance interoperability between militaries by the creation of common standards and systems.

The US also reiterated its support for India’s permanent membership in the reformed UNSC and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The three dialogues also saw statements exhorting Pakistan to take tangible steps against terrorists operating on its soil. With three fruitful dialogues, the fourth ‘two plus two’ is likely to be held later this year in Washington DC.

Indo-Japan, India-Australia

India and Japan share robust security and strategic ties. While the trade between the two countries is not substantial, India is the largest receiver of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). The Delhi Metro - a phenomenal success story - and the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project have received Japanese assistance. The inaugural two plus two dialogue was held in 2019 in New Delhi and recognized the importance of military exercises, the significance of Quad (an informal Indo-Pacific grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia) and the exchange programs between defense, educational and research institutes.

The ministers reiterated the vision for a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region and also condemned the terror emanating from Pakistan. The second ‘two plus two’ was scheduled for April 2021 but got postponed due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in India.

Australia is emerging as a key strategic player in the Indo-Pacific, a region that is increasingly becoming the center of the new world order. The establishment of a defense and foreign ministerial dialogue mechanism provides leverage to both the nations in synergizing their diplomatic and security engagement in the face of an increasingly aggressive China. The first two plus two held in New Delhi last month reflected the growing strategic convergence in Indian and Australian interests against common challenges.

The ministers committed to an open, free, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific region and decided to cooperate more closely on maritime challenges and opportunities. The ministers also reaffirmed ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific region while reiterating strong commitment towards Quad. Australia also committed AUD 1 million (728,000 USD) and AUD 10 million (7.28 million USD) for ISA and CDRI, both India-led initiatives.

Australia reiterated its support for India’s inclusion in NSG and touched upon issues of cyber-security and terrorism. While appreciating Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar exercise (a multilateral war-gaming naval exercise now involving the four QUAD members), Australia invited India to participate in its Talisman Sabre exercise (a biennial, multinational military exercise led by Australia and the United States). The ministers also discussed Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, steps to improve the economic partnership between the nations and closer collaboration on environmental issues. The two countries have decided to make the dialogue a biennial affair.

Integrating diplomacy with security 

The two plus two is a dialogue for the future. It provides partnering nations a platform to integrate diplomacy with security. Not only does it help in taking two steps at a time, but it also facilitates the establishment of a regular mechanism and maintains the momentum of bilateral partnership. India’s dialogues with all three countries have been fruitful and provide New Delhi the necessary space to advance its Indo-Pacific interests which may be overlooked in the QUAD due to the presence of all four members together.

India has rightly decided to expand its ‘two plus two’ engagement with countries beyond the Quad. The decision to establish a ministerial dialogue with Russia clearly shows the strategic autonomy that India possesses and its freedom from bloc affiliations. Now India needs to expand its ‘two plus two’ engagement with countries of strategic importance.

A two plus two can be initiated with France with whom India’s strategic and military relationship, especially arms sales is deepening while the French have well-known ambitions in Indo Pacific. From nuclear to space, to renewables and infrastructure – India and France are deeply linked and a two plus two will only add positives.

Similarly, a two plus two dialogue can be established with the UK as well. While forging these dialogues, India should not forget Bangladesh as the interests of the two neighbors are increasingly converging in recent times, a thing which is well reflected in their close cooperation on diverse issues like terrorism, infrastructure development, trade and connectivity.

Another approach for India could be region-based. India can pick countries of strategic importance in different regions like South and South East Asia, Africa, Latin America and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and engage with them more closely. Not only will this bring the two nations closer, but will also significantly magnify the Indian footprint in the region.

Economic two plus two 

While the participating ministers in a two plus two dialogue are commonly the ones holding defense and external affairs portfolios, nothing is cast in stone. In today’s globalized world, economic partnerships hold equal significance as strategic ones. India can innovatively explore the avenues of holding trade talks in two plus two ministerial formats. Trade deals with countries like the US, the UK and the UAE can be advanced through a two plus two ministerial between finance and trade/commerce ministers of the participating nations.

If fixed as an annual ministerial dialogue, it can bring tangible results which continuous secretarial discussions are not able to bring as ministerial engagements are followed more closely and there remains a pressure to come up with deliverables. This mechanism can also be installed for closer climate cooperation. At a time when the global push is on renewables and for transitioning into sustainable and green economies, a ministerial two plus two between environment/science and tech (as may be the case country-wise) and finance ministers can help immensely in sharing of technology, processes, skills and funds for developing sustainable and resilient economies.

The 'two plus two' is a great forum to synergize efforts and actions between two nations. Restricting it to a small number of countries, or security and diplomacy alone, may not be the wisest thing to do in this ever-evolving, ever-challenging global environment.

(The writer, an M.Com degree holder from Hindu College, University of Delhi, keenly follows global geopolitics, international relationships, diplomacy and security studies. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shubhamsiwach00@gmail.com)