India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in New Delhi on October 27. Photo: Indian Press Information Bureau

India signing a defense agreement with the United States couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as both countries face challenges. India is embroiled in disputes on its land borders and the US and its allies are contesting China’s claim to maritime territories across critical shipping routes in the Indo-Pacific region.

Under the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which was signed in Delhi on October 27, the two will share military information, including advanced satellite and topographic data such as land maps, naval and aeronautical details, and geodetic, geophysical and gravity data. Washington will help India locate enemy targets and pre-empt enemy actions through the use of cruise and ballistic missiles, and drones.

An embattled India faces a grave threat from encroacher China along its 3,488km land border and uncertainty over the outcome of peace talks with Beijing. The two nuclear-armed countries have forces amassed along most of the border, especially Ladakh, draining resources.

Roping India into its global alliance is critical for the United States, as the emerging superpower wields tremendous influence and has a position of eminence in Asia and the developing world. India’s strategic location will facilitate US efforts to contain China, which is scrambling to set up naval bases in every possible Indian Ocean port.

At the conclusion of the third US-India Two-Plus-Two Dialogue, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was forthright, saying the Chinese Communist Party was no friend to democracy or the rule of law and that China doesn’t want a free Indo-Pacific and was a threat to the freedom of the region. Defense Secretary Mark Esper noted “increased aggression by China.”

“The US will stand with India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and liberty,’’ said Pompeo. India shouldn’t feel it is alone to fend for itself. Some foreign policy experts believe Tuesday’s agreement is as significant as India’s 2005 civil nuclear deal with the US.

India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, while exuding optimism over “military cooperation progressing well,” said the two countries also discussed the need for quick economic recovery and growth, rebuilding global supply chains and related issues.

The US-India Dialogue comes close on the heels of the expansion and strengthening of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) of Japan, Australia, India and the US, and the inclusion of Australia in India’s annual Malabar naval exercises along with the US and Japan in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea in November. India was also an invitee at the Five Eyes group of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK for joint signals intelligence cooperation.

The US-India joint statement after the third Two Plus Two Dialogue “emphasized that the code of conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of any nation in accordance with international law.’’

For Japan tension also remains high with China making claims on the Senkaku Islands that it has possessed in the oil- and gas-rich and strategically located East China Sea for more than 125 years. China is in a dispute with countries in the South China Sea, too, especially Vietnam and the Philippines over rights to the deep sea for oil and crucial passage for its ships moving goods. China’s relations with Australia have also soured.

Later this week thousands of US and Japanese troops will take part in joint island-landing exercises in the Pacific to send a signal that the US backs Japan’s claims over the islands located near Taiwan. The US just signed a $2.4-billion deal with Taiwan to sell it 100 Harpoon coastal defense systems, ignoring China’s displeasure.

Roping India into a wider alliance is seen by foreign affairs experts as significant for the US because of the role the South Asian country can potentially play in the Indian Ocean, and beyond.

Some observers attach significance to the agreement being signed when the US presidential election is just a week away. The fact that India still pushed ahead with BECA with a potentially outgoing administration reflects its confidence and comfort in dealing with either administration. The Modi government dealt with Democratic candidate Joe Biden when he was vice-president under President Barack Obama.

But the timing has not come as a surprise to seasoned pundits, considering the evolving global situation.

“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 defense and foreign policy has a larger resonance,’’ said S Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, setting the tone for the talks.

“Together, we can make a real difference when it comes to regional and global challenges, whether it is in respecting territorial integrity, promoting maritime domain awareness, countering terrorism or ensuring prosperity,’’ he said.

China’s stealth incursion into several areas of India’s Ladakh took advantage of a security lapse as the Indian establishment grappled with an unknown pandemic originating in Wuhan, China. The incursion was all the more deadly because it put pressure on India just as it was forced to lock down the country amid a slowing economy.

The Chinese action surely shook India’s leadership, which has invested heavily in China, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi meeting Xi Jinping more than 16 times. The Indian government has vowed to reduce import dependence on China as much as possible.

In the larger picture, the alliance with the US could mean India shifts away from China when it comes to sourcing telecom and power equipment and other high-technology items. Also likely to be affected are areas such as artificial intelligence and supply chains. The US and its allies would be the obvious beneficiaries.

Reacting to the India-US agreement, the Beijing-based Global Times commented that India is unlikely to be able to go too far with the US because of its close ties with Russia. The bilateral pact and the Quad are regional deterrence initiatives aimed at containing China, it said. India’s dependence on Russia for arms, including the S-400 missile system, and the building of a nuclear power station will prevent its cooperation with the US from going very far, it commented.

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