While bilateral ties have grown substantially in every domain, the basic building blocks of an India-US defence partnership are now solidly in place.
Amid the tumult of global geopolitics and the turbulence of the coronavirus pandemic, India and the US have quietly but firmly worked in the past several months to consolidate the foundations of an immensely constructive phase in their bilateral relations.
The formal two-plus-two talks that get underway in New Delhi on Tuesday involving top diplomats and military officials from both sides is but one glaring evidence of that foundation, as is the announcement that India will sign a military agreement - the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) - with the United States for sharing of sensitive satellite data. With both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper in New Delhi for the 2+2 dialogue with their Indian counterparts, the timing of the summit is astute. It comes not only exactly a week before the US presidential election, but also at a time when India is locked in its most serious military standoff with China in decades.
“Warm and productive meeting with @SecPompeo. Discussed key bilateral, regional and global issues. Reviewed progress in ties: grown substantially in every domain. Our foreign policy consultations and cooperation have expanded. Working closely on plurilateral and multilateral formats. Looking forward to the 2+2 Dialogue tomorrow,” Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar tweeted on Monday after holding a meeting with Pompeo on key bilateral and global issues. Separately, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also held talks with Esper on Monday.
According to Indian defence ministry officials, the BECA accord would provide India with access to a range of topographical, nautical and aeronautical data that is considered vital for targeting of missiles and armed drones, while providing the US to opportunity to offer advanced navigational aids and avionics on US-supplied aircraft to India.
According to some reports, the agreement may also function as a precursor to India acquiring armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as Predator-B from the US arsenal. Such UAVs rely on the US' geospatial data to undertake aerial strikes on enemy targets. The latest news also comes at a moment when India is mulling the purchase of 30 General Atomics MQ-9 Guardian drones from the US.
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Since Donald Trump became president, the US and India have rapidly ramped up their military relationship, with bilateral defence and weapons trade zooming from near zero in 2007 to $21 billion in 2020.
When Trump visited India in February, the two sides concluded defence deals worth over $3 billion. In addition, the US has been urging India to sign agreements such as BECA, allowing for sharing of sensitive information and encrypted communications for better use of the high-end military equipment.
“The basic building blocks of an India-US defence partnership have now been put in place. Whether on logistics or secure communications, the basic agreements required for military cooperation have been - or are about to be - signed,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, director of the US Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation. “A political level 2+2 dialogue has been institutionalised to oversee the host of working level bilateral and multilateral consultations, covering everything from space and cyber-cooperation to defence technology and maritime security.
Defence sales have become routine, with the Indian armed forces employing a growing number of American platforms. Technology barriers, which had once been the major obstacle to closer ties, have largely been overcome. All three military services conduct regular bilateral exercises, and a tri-service exercise has been initiated,” he wrote in the Hindustan Times.
With an increasing focus on Indo-Pacific by both nations, the key concern behind the recent spate of bilateral defence deals and the dialogue was clearly verbalized by Pompeo: “I′m sure that my meetings will also include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”
Indeed, ahead of Pompeo and Esper′s visit, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun visited New Delhi and called China “an elephant in the room,” underscoring that Washington was keen to build a free and open Indo-Pacific and counter risks posed by Chinese high-tech telecommunication networks that the U.S. sees as central to China′s predatory economic activity. “We will take every opportunity to really advocate for a strong digital economy and partnership in the countries where we′re going and seek support of the Clean Networks, which we think works to every country's advantage,” said Dean Thompson, the top US diplomat for South Asia.
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The strengthening defence partnership between the US and India is also impacting the dynamics of relations elsewhere in the region.
Australia, for instance, last week confirmed its participation in next month's naval exercises involving India, United States and Japan off the Bay of Bengal.
Similarly, Pompeo will visit the Maldives later this week after concluding his talks in India - and New Delhi has offered unambiguous support for the Pentagon when it went ahead with a defence pact with the island nation in September. Pompeo will be the first US secretary of state since 2004 to visit the Maldives, which under the defence accord agreed to strengthen cooperation with the US and support a "free and open Indo-Pacific." That stance was in sharp contrast to seven years ago, when Washington wanted to seal a defence deal with the Maldives and was thwarted by India.
“At another time, India might have complained about the US presence in the Indian Ocean. Today, it doesn't want the US to leave. India recognizes that it can′t do it alone, either because of capacity issues or because it has baggage with the countries that affects what they would be willing to do with India versus, say, Japan or the US,” Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project at the Brookings Institution, told Reuters. According to other analysts, the change is also about a deepening concern in New Delhi about Beijing's ultimate ambitions.
What has helped evolve the situation quickly for the benefit of both countries is also the personal chemistry between Modi and Trump. “Both countries' leaders consider themselves primarily stewards and less transformers of the bilateral relationship. Greater risk-taking and willingness to 'agree to disagree' with partners are traits of India's foreign policy under Modi, which could serve the US-India relationship well,” said Antoine Levesques and Viraj Solanki of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
At the same time, New Delhi remains acutely aware of the need to expand its value offering beyond being a tool to counterbalance China in the region. “A US-Indian partnership should not be conceptualized simply as a means to contain or contest China. The United States should appreciate India's intrinsic importance more fully. To conceive of India as a balance against China instrumentalises it,” according to George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
With all the solid foundation work done, the India-US partnership will thus remain one of the highest priorities for both in the year ahead - and both sides agree that strategic circumstances warrant a more robust and deeper relationship between the two irrespective of who wins the US election next week.