India, US ink defence deal with China on mind

This is a part of efforts to check China’s increasing sway in the Indo-Pacific region.

Credit : AICircle

The United States and India on Tuesday inked a defence deal in New Delhi, under which that they will exchange sensitive satellite data. Both hailed the agreement as a new chapter of cooperation. This is a part of efforts to check China’s increasing sway in the Indo-Pacific region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper while Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh held the annual strategic talks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also had a meeting with them. The talks mainly dealt with regional stability and various dimensions of the bilateral ties.

According to the SCMP, the cooperation is aimed at a “free and open” Indo-Pacific and indicated a direction toward formalising the Quad. It also wants to set up “more trusted and resilient” global supply chains. However, the China factor is the basis of the deal.

The two countries signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), a military agreement allowing both to exchange geospatial intelligence for use against enemy countries. Now, the US can provide the latest navigational tech in the US fighter jets being sold to India. Esper has been asking India to buy more US F-18 fighters in place of Russian armaments.

Earlier, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun was in New Delhi this month and said that China was the “elephant in the room” in the bilateral ties between the US and India. Details of the Delhi meetings indicated that both have noted the presence of the ‘elephant’.

The US leaders talked tough about China, in line with their president’s stance towards China. Pompeo said they had “a lot to discuss today, from cooperating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region”.

Later, addressing a press meet, he said they held “robust discussions on the Chinese Communist Party” and added that the party was “no friend to democracy”. Extending its support to India in the border stand-off with China, Pompeo said the US will “stand with India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and liberty”.

Esper said, “We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in view of increasing aggression and destabilising activities by China.”

The Indian leaders did not name China. With an oblique hint at China, Jaishankar said the Indo-Pacific region was “a particular focus” during the discussions. He said a “peaceful, stable and secure” region is India’s vision. This can be achieved only by “ensuring freedom of navigation in international seas, promoting open connectivity and respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all nations”.

“At a time when it is particularly important to uphold a rules-based international order, the ability of India and the US to work closely in defence and foreign policy has a larger resonance,” Jaishankar said.

The bilateral deal was sealed ahead of the US presidential poll and as India and China are trying to de-escalate tensions on the Himalayan border. US defence secretary Esper said they should “institutionalise and regularise” defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. This points to US insistence on formalising the Quad.

Briefing reporters in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin asked the US Secretary of State “to abandon his Cold War mentality, zero-sum mindset, and stop harping on the ‘China threat’”.

Experts said the agreement takes the Indo-US relations to a new level. This ends India’s non-alignment policy. India has become apprehensive about other countries weakening its hold over South Asia.

This deal is final among the four defence agreements for mutual defence support. It includes the use of military bases. The first deal, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSMIA), was inked in 2002. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was sealed in 2016  while the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement was made in 2018.

Sources from Indian defences said the BECA could expedite arms purchases from the US dependent on American geospatial data and satellite pictures, like armed drones and surveillance drones.

Following Rajnath Singh’s talks with Esper, India issued a statement saying they discussed “potential new areas of cooperation”. Esper welcomed India’s invitation to Australia for the latter’s participation in the Malabar naval exercises. The other Quad partners, the US and Japan, will also be part of the exercises.

The pact is likely to add to India’s military power in the backdrop of its ongoing border row with China. A solution to the issue doesn’t seem to be in sight. However, violence has not taken place in the last two months.

Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House fellow Sameer Patil said the BECA would strengthen India’s surveillance capabilities immensely. Patil said, “BECA would give India access to real-time satellite imagery which is very important for it, especially now amid the stand-off.”

“India can monitor, in real-time, the movement of Chinese troops, their deployment and activities, and American analysts can help India break this data down.”

A retired major general from the Indian army said, “The winter makes it very tough for on-ground surveillance by our troops through patrolling. The visibility will be so low that it will be virtually impossible for troops to keep a check on Chinese activities.”

“Through such times, precise satellite imagery and surveillance [provided through the] BECA will enable us to not just keep a check on but also respond quicker to any assertiveness.”

Patil, however, said the pact may not help India immediately. “Such agreements generally take some time to operationalise, from a few months to more than a year, but the two sides are likely to expedite this.”