Here is one way of looking at it: the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T Esper to New Delhi comes extremely deep into what would, in India, be the period of operation of the model code of conduct. Coming ahead on an election, the code bars the government from making any major political announcements. There is just a week until the US goes to the polls, on November 3. Already, millions of Americans have made their choice by sending mail-in ballots ahead of time.
This has been one of the most divisive US elections in recent times. The American Opposition has not hestitated to call out the actions of US President Donald Trump at home or abroad, especially since some of those efforts have appeared to be aimed solely at ensuring his re-election.
Yet the visit of Pompeo and Esper to sign a major defence deal with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a leader whose open embrace of Trump has come in for criticism in both countries, barely a week before election has not come in for partisan criticism in the US.
“To its credit, [the Trump administration] has substantially advanced security and defense ties with India,” Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been advising Democratic candidate Joe Biden on foreign policy, told the Washington Post. “[There’s a] bipartisan consensus on the importance of this relationship, and that’s really quite valuable.”
What did they sign?
The combined talks between Pompeo and Esper with Indian External Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh were called the 2+2 dialogue. The main outcome of the meeting was the signing of the Indo-US Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geo-spatial co-ordination.
BECA, as its known, would allow India and the US to access a wide variety of geospatial data from the each other, such as detailed maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, as well as imagery. The agreement creates a framework for classified data in this domain to be shared.
This data will give India’s long-range missiles or drones the ability to strike targets thousands of kilometres away with great accuracy. Now that it has signed the BECA, India will be able to access the “highly accurate navigation satellite networks” run by the US.
According to the Indian Express, “the cooperation also includes sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts, and data exchange on Chinese troops and weapons deployment along the 3,488-km India-China [Line of Actual Control]”.
BECA is generally referred to as the the fourth of the “foundational agreements” with complex short forms – GSOMIA, LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA – that the US signs with countries with which it wants to pursue deeper defence engagement. With India, that process has taken decades. But its completion allows New Delhi to become a “major defence partner” of the US.
In addition to BECA, the 2+2 meeting resulted in agreements on a whole range of other subjects from coordination during the Covid-19 pandemic to joint efforts on matters like earth sciences and counter-terrorism operations, details of which were listed in the joint statement.
What is the context?
“If I may say so myself, the performance of our relationship in the last few years has been exceptionally positive,” Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said after the meeting . “The 2+2 dialogue has a pol-mil agenda that underlines our close bilateral relationship. Our national security convergences have obviously grown in a more multi-polar world. We meet today to not only advance our own interests but to ensure that our bilateral cooperation makes a positive contribution in the world arena.”
In his opening remarks at the 2+2 dialogue, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear what Washington hopes to get out of closer defence ties with India.
“Today is real opportunity for two great democracies like ours to grow closer... There is much more work to do for sure,” Pompeo said. “We have 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.”
Indeed, the global threat from a rising China explains why New Delhi and Washington have been moving quickly on establishing defence ties. China is currently sitting on territory in Eastern Ladakh claimed by India. Its entry into this territory earlier this year provoked the first violent and fatal clash along the LAC in four decades.
As India has done in the past, Jaishankar refused to mention China. Asked if Beijing was a factor in the current agreement, he said:
“There isn’t one factor, there are two factors. One is called India, the other is called the United States of America. If you look at the growth of this relationship, as I pointed out in virtually every domain, it’s been – it’s actually been very, very remarkable over the last 20 years, but I would say especially the last few years. This is a relationship that serves our national interest well, as it does that of the United States. But what is equally important is that the Indo-U.S. collaboration can be a force of good. So in that sense it is truly global, it is truly comprehensive, it is truly strategic, and that’s the reason why we are meeting.”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did mention, according to a readout by the US State Department, that “in the area of defense we are challenged by reckless aggression on our northern borders.”
India’s reluctance to name China has often come from a belief that it can still maintain cordial relations with Beijing, as Modi has attempted to do most prominently through informal summits that followed border tensions between the two countries.
Yet the Ladakh clashes this year appeared to have hardened New Delhi’s resolve to treat China more clearly as an adversary. It has banned apps developed in China, put barriers to the flow of investment, informally encouraged Indians to buy local goods rather than China-made ones and endorsing the “Quad”, a multilateral grouping of democracies that also includes the US, Japan and Australia.
Earlier in October, the foreign ministers of this grouping met separately for the first time and agreed to cooperate on a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – a phrase that is squarely aimed at China’s expansionism in the region. The summit was followed by Australia being included in the Malabar exercises that already include the Indian, American and Japanese navies, signaling further momentum to the growing cooperation.
“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the [Chinese Communist Party] is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation – the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Pompeo said at a press conference after the dialogue.
His visit to India come as part of a trip that also includes traveling to Sri Lanka in the hope of pushing Colombo not to move even closer to China. It follows the conclusion of a deal by the US to sell $2.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, prompting sanctions on those defence companies from Beijing.
“I am glad to say that the United States and India are taking steps to strengthen our cooperation against all manner of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party.,” Pompeo said. “In the past year, we’ve expanded our cooperation on cyber issues, our navies have held joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. I know too, happily, that Australia is joining Malabar 2020 Naval Exercise. May the United States keep leading together along with India on the issues of our time.”