The visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to India for the third India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue coupled with the recent Quad consultations between the two sides have refocused attention on the ties between two of the world’s biggest, and perhaps most consequential, democracies.
The signing of a much-awaited key military pact – the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) – amid India’s standoff with China in Eastern Ladakh, Washington’s trade frictions with Beijing and China’s assertive adventurism in the South China Sea has, if anything, instated China as a stimulus for stronger US-India defense ties.
The 2+2 dialogue saw discussions on enhancing defense-industry collaborations, improving Covid-19 responses, enhancing people-to-people contacts and improving bilateral trade cooperation.
Such an expansive coverage of topics marks a positive step toward actualizing the envisaged “global” nature of the US-India strategic partnership.
BECA, the last of four foundational agreements between the US and India, will allow for the sharing of geospatial information between the two sides’ militaries, transfer of high-end defense technology and sharing of classified satellite data.
The consultations came at a critical juncture, with both states keeping an eye on China’s efforts to carve a new role for itself through an aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific region.
Beijing’s “bullying” behavior in its territorial disputes, its activities in the South and East China Seas, alleged abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang, bellicose posturing against Taiwan, actions in Hong Kong and a widespread campaign of disinformation undoubtedly set the tone for India-US deliberations – and a future trajectory of ties.
While BECA was the most widely discussed and debated milestone, the 2+2 also witnessed the signing of several other bilateral agreements. The two states cemented their understanding in the fields of cancer research, sharing of customs data, cooperation in nuclear energy and in oceanic and atmospheric sciences.
More important, the 2+2 built on a security relationship that had already been intensifying over the past year.
India and US have, for instance, initiated a bilateral Defense Cyber Dialogue in September (in addition to the existing US-India Cyber Dialogue); inaugurated a meeting between the Indian Innovation Organization (DIO-iDEX) and the US Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in July; established a permanent presence of the US International Development Finance Cooperation (DFC) in India; and announced new priorities in their Strategic Energy Partnership (SEP), also in July.
Additionally, both countries are set to review their military engagement within the Military Cooperation Group (MCG) forum later this year.
Gradually smoothing relations
It would be fair to say that India and the US have shared a somewhat rocky historical relationship. India’s staunch commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the politics of the Cold War, New Delhi’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities in 1974 and ascendance to becoming a nuclear power in 1998 have given their bilateral ties an unstable past.
However, in the past two decades, relations have steadily improved, with defense, economic and ideological security taking center stage. The fact that the third 2+2 has been held in-person, even amid an uncertain political environment in the US and as both countries suffer the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, further accentuates the prime importance each nation is according to the other.
Washington has swiftly made India a linchpin of its Asia strategy, considering it a critical partner for maintaining long-term stability in Asia – directed first toward terrorism and now primarily toward China’s growing aggressiveness.
The two nations now share a “Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership” that espouses a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific; Pompeo’s statement after discussions with Jaishankar ahead of the 2+2 reasserted the importance of the partnership as critical to “security of both countries, the Indo-Pacific and the world.”
More important, both sides have worked hard over the past decade to build a systemic level of trust – the 2+2 dialogues, which replaced the old Strategic and Commercial Dialogue format, are a product of such efforts.
Both countries have deepened their security ties in a comprehensive manner: Not only have they signed critical agreements like the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA), Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA), but they have increased their defense trade to more than US$20 billion in the last 13 years.
In combination with BECA, India-US military ties will upgrade Indian defense capacities and help make the country an impressive power in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is swiftly becoming a theater of conflict with China’s attempts to expand its reach to the maritime domain by building a naval presence – demanding that India, the US and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners accentuate their own efforts to sustain the regional rules-based order here.
India’s deepening security partnership will allow for increased focus in the region, as New Delhi enhances its intelligence-gathering efforts vis-à-vis China’s movements. Furthermore, Pompeo’s remarks affirming that the US stands with India in New Delhi’s ongoing border standoff with China and any other “threat” could help provide momentum to the “stalemate” in India-China peace talks.
China’s rapidly rising assertiveness amid a quickly changing geopolitical and geo-strategic landscape has arguably spurred India-US defense ties. The signing of BECA, which had been under negotiation for more than 10 years, shows the acute importance China holds to the US-India partnership.
India’s hesitancy over the years to sign the deal due to concerns over the protection of classified intelligence and access to top-secret laboratories in India was pacified via dedicated consultation processes; amid India’s changing China outlook, a hesitant yet visible pivot toward the US-led worldview of the Indo-Pacific region seems to be emerging.
Although Jaishankar has staunchly argued that India will “never” be part of an alliance framework, it cannot be denied that New Delhi is opening up to deeper security relationships in both bilateral and multilateral formats, and finding increased synergy with certain like-minded partners, primarily as a result of its increasing hostilities with China.
While India may not join a traditional alliance system, it will be (and already is) actively deepening defense engagements across the spectrum of its Indo-Pacific partners. As Jaishankar stated in his press statement after talks with Pompeo, the present US-India “national-security convergences have obviously grown in a more multipolar world.”
Making a note of India’s imminent entry to the United Nations Security Council on January 1, 2021, as a non-permanent member, Jaishankar also highlighted India’s staunch belief that a “multipolar world must have a multipolar Asia as its basis.”
Notably, BECA’s timing is linked to three crucial events: the last stretch to the November 3 US presidential election; the ongoing India-China border skirmish and deadlocked talks; and the Malabar naval exercises in November that will, for the first time, involve all “Quad 2.0” members, with Australia’s recent inclusion.
The China factor
The signing of BECA has led to China delaying the next round of border talks over the ongoing skirmish. Chinese state-run media outlets have responded harshly over the 2+2, terming it as a US attempt to turn India into a proxy in its focus on limiting China’s growth and calling it an “all for itself” meeting.
The narratives in Chinese media in days leading up to the conference reflected Beijing’s concerns. A Global Times article published on October 10 conveyed Beijing’s deep-rooted fears. Although the article saw India-US ties as driven by economics to boost India’s place in global supply chains despite its “awful” business environment, rather than China exclusively, it did present the underlying fears of a potential India-US alliance.
“A biting dog doesn’t bark,” the op-ed said, adding: “India is, as a matter of fact, making genuine efforts to institutionalize US-India military cooperation by pretending to keep a low profile in its diplomatic rhetoric. Take the BECA, for example. With the new agreement, India could boost the accuracy of its weapons such as cruise and ballistic missiles. It couldn’t be more obvious that the move is aimed at China.”
At this writing, China’s formal response to the BECA and the 2+2 is yet to be released; however, it is unlikely that Beijing will make concrete statements in an official capacity, though there might be some careful statements made at press conferences.
Nonetheless, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, during his regular press briefing on Tuesday against the backdrop of the India-US 2+2 consultations, asked the US to “stop hyping up the so-called ‘China threat,’ and stop the misguided efforts to sow discord between regional countries.”
At the same time, it is important to note that in reaction to the BECA’s signing, China has already held a “quadrilateral” meeting of its own with Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan. Unlike the India-Japan-Australia-US Quad – which remains many steps away from militarization – the China-led Quad has much higher possibility of transforming into a military alliance, with Beijing in essence controlling its trajectory as the sole great power amid other middle-power or lower-ranked states.
BECA’s signing is emblematic of an ever-deepening level of trust between New Delhi and Washington, something that Beijing has tried to discourage overtly. While BECA comes as a logical next step of a swiftly progressing bilateral engagement free of external influences, it would not be wrong to argue that China’s growing aggression has been a catalyst in their recent surge.
Beijing’s intensifying competition with Washington, alongside its (exponentially) escalating hostilities with New Delhi, have only served to bind India and the US closer together. A formal alignment between the two countries, particularly in terms of their China strategy and security cooperation, would in essence put the US at China’s doorstep and strengthen India’s strategic choices vis-à-vis its belligerent neighbor.
While China is a major factor behind growing synergy and convergence between the two nations, it is important that US-India ties grow on an expansive level moving forward.
India’s potential inclusion in the Blue Dot Network, the US’s entry to the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) by India-Japan-Australia, and deeper integration and exchange of defense innovation and technologies are crucial steps toward furthering the US-India bilateral relationship.