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Don't expect much from Mattis-Sitharaman meeting

September 25, 2017 18:06 IST

Sitharaman has completed just 19 days as defence minister and is also pre-occupied with the Gujarat assembly election, notes Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis will meet Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday, September 26 -- their first meeting. Photographs: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters, Kham/Reuters

When United States Defence Secretary Jim Mattis meets his Indian counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on Tuesday, it will be a first handshake between an unusually powerful American incumbent and a greenhorn Indian one.

General Mattis is a vastly experienced combat soldier who has commanded an infantry battalion in Iraq in 1991, an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan after 9/11, a US Marine division in Iraq in 2003 and eventually the US Central Command, which covers the world's most dangerous hotspots from Pakistan to West Asia and North Africa.

He is also a member of United States President Donald J Trump's cabinet and of the US national security council. Most significantly, with the US president embroiled in domestic political battles, General Mattis calls the shots in defence more than any recent predecessor.

In contrast, Sitharaman will have served just 19 days as defence minister when she meets General Mattis.

Further, she is preoccupied with the Gujarat elections for which the Bharatiya Janata Party has appointed her sah-prabhari.

With the Prime Minister's Office retaining control of important defence ministry issues, there is little expectation that Sitharaman will go beyond her talking points when she meets General Mattis.


American and Indian officials agree there are few deliverables on the table.

Instead, they are playing the Mattis-Sitharaman meeting as an opportunity to establish personal rapport -- like that between previous US defence secretary Dr Ashton Carter and Manohar Parrikar between 2014 and 2016.

US officials privately admit to concern over Sitharaman's reserved presence which contrasts with Parrikar's gregariousness.

"As a commerce minister she came off as cold and haughty and her lack of confidence caused her to stick to her positions. That effectively stalled the trade dialogue," says a senior American industry leader.

Sources say General Mattis will discuss with Sitharaman the implications of Major Defence Partner, a category that Washington placed India in last year; and how New Delhi proposes to enlarge Indian 'economic assistance and development' in Afghanistan, which Trump called for last month.

General Mattis himself is a key driver of an expanded US presence and role in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan will be a big part of Mattis' discussions in New Delhi. He will be going straight from Delhi to Kabul," says a US official, speaking off the record.

The US defence secretary will raise the issue of China, with India having recently come off the Doklam confrontation.

The two sides will also discuss rejuvenating the sputtering Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, with progress stalled in cooperating on jet engine technology, and in building India's next aircraft carrier.

During then US president Barack Obama's visit to New Delhi in 2015, two joint working groups had been set up to pursue these projects.

With little progress on those, three more JWGs are on the agenda.

"We could see three new JWGs for cooperation in space, cybersphere and on ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance)," says a US industry insider.

Finally, Mattis will urge New Delhi to push through a Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement, which would allow the US to supply India with advanced communications equipment for greater interoperability. This has been stuck for years, with drafts repeatedly exchanged, but little agreement on a final text.

Notwithstanding media reports about US pressure on India to transfer the F-16 production line to India; and to buy 22 Sea Guardian drones, US officials say General Mattis will only flag these "opportunities".

Meanwhile, US stakeholders, including General Atomics, which builds the Sea Guardian, are reminding New Delhi through various channels that much political capital has been invested in clearing that drone sale in Washington.

"There is worry that India might be using the Sea Guardian offer to create the impression of a multi-vendor procurement, but has already decided in favour of an Israeli drone," says one US industry analyst.

"The heightened public focus on the F-16 is because the production line in Forth Worth, Texas, is shutting down soon and Washington needs to know quickly if India wants it," he says.

General Mattis' visit comes in the backdrop of delay in scheduling the 'two-plus-two' dialogue, which will have US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and General Mattis meeting jointly with Sitharaman and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

This format replaced the earlier 'strategic and commercial dialogue', which involved the foreign and commerce ministers (then Sitharaman).

Ajai Shukla