New Delhi: Ahead of the two plus two talks with the United States, India must be cautious against taking sides in the looming second Cold War. Russia and China are embarking on a massive military exercise near Russia’s eastern border and the target is the United States. The United States meanwhile has accused China of souring its denuclearization talks with North Korea to avenge the trade war which threatens the Chinese economy, imperils Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and puts Xi Jinping’s autocracy in unexpected turmoil. Russia-US relations, concurrently, have gone off the rails with the Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin summit weeks ago having contrarily doubled American sanctions on the former Soviet Union.

India believes it is entitled to waivers of one or the other kind in the international system. There is no rationale for the belief but it pervades rather thickly in the corridors of the ministry of external affairs and animates Indian diplomats posted in the capitals of the Major Powers. So we are fed with optimistic government handouts suitably mediated by the press that China is very close to accepting India in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. What about its objection to India’s outlier status in the NPT regime? Why should it make a concession to India with no possibility of obtaining an equal one for Pakistan? And why should China favour India when its claims over Arunachal Pradesh to consolidate its hold over Tibet are flatly rejected by New Delhi? Diplomats have no answers to these basic questions while jejunely arguing that the trade war with the United States has made China friendlier with India. What does it mean? That China sizes the Indian market as equal to America’s? That India is a comparable technology leader? What rubbish.

The naivety extends to understanding US sanctions policies as well. US-Russia relations are in a free fall. Any country dealing in strategic trade with Russia faces secondary sanctions without discrimination. Since weeks the ministry of external affairs and its Washington diplomats have fed false hopes that India will not face sanctions should it buy the S-400 Russian air defence system. This writer has repeatedly cautioned against baseless optimism. Even though India will not be a threat to the United States armed with S-400s, US war planners cannot take a chance. S-400s anywhere in the world represent a net accretion of Russian military power. Capacities matter more than intentions.

The papers say the S-400 will figure in the two plus two talks which is perhaps obvious. But pleading for them in the main in the talks will diffuse and even divert the focus of the two plus two. The two plus two is about US-India foreign and military relations, not S-400. What does India expect of foreign and military relations with the United States? The bulk of the pre-talks preparations must revolve around this question.

The United States is clear, however, on what it desires from India geopolitically and militarily. It wants India to assist the United States and the East Asian middle powers in containing China. Obviously, India cannot agree to contribute to China’s containment in crude geopolitical and military terms. India stands alone in southern Asia to share a highly contested land border with China, a frontier which has seen bloody clashes in 1962 and tensions and incursions since. The United States is a distant power. It can withdraw from any region on account of domestic and financial pressures. The United States cannot be a reliable ally in a military confrontation with China. Trade wars are another matter. China’s surging economy makes it the number one threat to world peace. Constrain the economy and China’s expansion is constrained by and by. Donald Trump is perfectly justified to demand a level playing field with China and in the WTO which China has manipulated to its advantage. Appeasing China in its worst moment with the United States will anger the United States and keep China insatiable. Seeing India’s NSG desperation, China has set an informal precondition that New Delhi joins the CPEC. Arunachal Pradesh will be next, followed by China’s open offer to broker a Kashmir peace with Pakistan. Do we understand all these ramifications as we blunder ahead on NSG and S-400 waivers?

Most immediately, India faces a real danger of losing focus in the two plus two dialogue. Let New Delhi be warned. Jim Mattis and especially Mike Pompeo will come highly prepared and full of demands.