New Delhi, October 27 (NPR/Hindustan Times): A week before the US Presidential election, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a military data sharing agreement Tuesday in India, before heading to Sri Lanka on a multi-country tour aimed at pushing the Trump administration’s anti-China message.
Pompeo was joined in New Delhi by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Together they signed a pact with their Indian counterparts to share sensitive satellite data, often used to steer missiles and drones. It’s the latest in a series of U.S.-India military agreements designed to counter China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), one of five agreements signed by the two sides on Tuesday, will allow India to get access to classified US satellite imagery, maps and critical aeronautical data that will help the military strike targets with greater accuracy using platforms such as long-range missiles.
BECA is the last of four foundational agreements between India and the US for sharing sensitive information and facilitating sales of advanced weapons systems. The two sides have been sharing real time intelligence under the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) signed in 2018, and they signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 for reciprocal access to logistics. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was inked in 2002.
Previous Congress-led governments had held off on signing all the agreements because of thinking in certain quarters that they would tie India militarily with the US. The people cited above said there were adequate safeguards in the pacts to protect India’s autonomy and sovereignty.
Chaitanya Giri, fellow for space and ocean studies at Gateway House, said BECA can help the two sides coordinate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) during joint exercises and operations. “The India-specificity of these agreements demonstrates the US’s recognition of India’s doctrine of strategic autonomy,” he said.
Technology-specific cooperation made possible by these agreements can help co-development and co-production of technologies under the India-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), Giri added.
Can’t Wholly Follow US
Former Northern Army commander, Lt Gen (retired) DS Hooda, described Pompeo’s remarks on US backing for India as part of efforts to build a closer alliance. However, India’s policy towards China cannot wholly follow America’s, he added.
“I think the larger message is the attempt by the US to get India into a closer alliance to counter what is clearly greater assertiveness by China in Asia. Both India and the US have some common cause in resisting Chinese actions. However, India will be conscious that China is an immediate neighbor, with whom we have an unsettled boundary. Therefore there are some issues that will have to be handled bilaterally, and a strategic balance has to be maintained,” Hooda said.
The Indian and American ministers welcomed New Delhi’s decision to include Australia in this year’s edition of the Malabar exercise, which brings together the navies of India, Japan and the US. This will be the first military manoeuvres in 13 years to feature all members of the Quad.
Singh said the 2+2 meeting also explored capacity building and other joint cooperation activities in third countries, including in India’s neighborhood and beyond. “We have convergence of views on a number of such proposals and will take those forward,” he said.
The US accepted India’s request for cooperation in maritime domain awareness and both sides will take steps for joint development of systems and expertise, Singh said.
Besides strengthening Covid-19-related cooperation to develop vaccines, therapeutics, and equipment, the two sides are working on a MoU between health authorities to enhance cooperation on health emergencies, pandemics, and biomedical research. The two sides also intend to sign a MoU between the Indian Council of Medical Research and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to collaborate on infectious diseases, including Covid-19 and other emerging threats.
“Big things are happening, as our democracies align to better protect the citizens of our two countries and indeed, of the free world,” Pompeo said at a news conference held outdoors, amid the pandemic. Participants removed their masks only when speaking into their microphones.
Earlier, Pompeo and Esper met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They discussed “COVID-19 response, security and defense cooperation, and shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.
Tuesday’s visit comes amid a spike in tensions between India and China. The two countries share the world’s longest unmarked border, stretching more than 2,000 miles, much of it high in the Himalayas. Violence broke out between rival troops there this summer. In June, 20 Indian troops were killed in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese soldiers.
Pompeo and Esper laid wreaths at a war memorial in New Delhi early Tuesday. Military buglers played as Pompeo put his hand on his heart. Afterward, he said he was thinking of those 20 Indian troops killed this summer.
And he railed against the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.
“The CCP 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.
Pompeo juxtaposed joint efforts to fight Covid-19, which he described as the “pandemic that came from Wuhan”, with measures to counter China’s actions jeopardizing democracy and a rules-based order.
“The challenge of defeating the pandemic that came from Wuhan also fed into our robust discussions about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP 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,” he said.
“I’m glad to say that the US and India are taking steps to strengthen our cooperation against all manner of threats, and not just those posed by the CCP.”
Jaishankar and Singh didn’t name China in their remarks at the media interaction, and said the two countries are committed to bilateral and multilateral cooperation for post-pandemic economic recovery and creating more trusted supply chains, while also ensuring peace and stability for all countries in the Indo-Pacific.
Singh referred to growing information-sharing and interaction between India’s armed forces and various US military commands through the exchange of liaison officers, and called on America’s defence industry to join India’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative by taking advantage of the liberalised FDI regime.
“Our national security convergences have obviously grown in a more multi-polar world,” Jaishankar said, noting that peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific depend on upholding the rules-based order, ensuring freedom of navigation, promoting open connectivity and “respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states”. He added, “A multi-polar world must have a multi-polar Asia as its basis.”
The United States has long viewed India as a bulwark against China. The Trump administration has increased military exercises with India and pushed New Delhi to buy more U.S. weapons.
Skipping China and Russia
However, there was an awkward moment at Tuesday’s news conference, when Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh was asked whether he’s willing to stop buying Russian weapons. For decades, the Soviet Union and later Russia were India’s biggest arms suppliers.
“Decisions happen on the basis of negotiations,” Singh demurred. “Whomever we buy from, or not buy from, depends on negotiations.”
Despite Pompeo’s strong anti-China rhetoric, neither Singh nor Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar mentioned China by name at their joint news conference with U.S. officials.
But the timing of their summit hosting Pompeo and Esper was clear, amid tensions with China after summertime border skirmishes, says Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s significant that (Pompeo and Esper’s visit) is happening even as India is involved in a boundary crisis with China. India might have declined to do a high-profile visit like this with American officials, in case China was provoked further,” Madan says. “So it says something about the U.S.-India relationship.”
Call To Pakistan To Stop Terrorism
India and the US reiterated their call for Pakistan to take irreversible action to ensure its territory isn’t used for terror attacks and to speedily prosecute the perpetrators and planners of the attacks in Mumbai, Uri and Pathankot.
The demand for action by Pakistan to counter terrorism, which figured in a joint statement issued after the 2+2 ministerial dialogue, was similar to calls made by India and the US in recent years. The joint statement also called for “concerted action” against terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Besides China’s aggressive actions across the region and beyond, counter-terrorism was part of the discussions. But the Indians focused on Pakistan in the press conference. Jaishankar told the media that the Indian side made it “clear that cross-border terrorism is completely unacceptable”.
The joint statement noted the ministers had “denounced the use of terrorist proxies and strongly condemned cross-border terrorism in all its forms”, and said: “They emphasised the need for concerted action against all terrorist networks, including al-Qaeda, ISIS/Daesh, Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.”
The statement added, “The ministers called on Pakistan to take immediate, sustained and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators and planners of all such attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai, Uri, and Pathankot.”
Six American citizens were among the 166 people killed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks carried out by a 10-member LeT team from Pakistan. The 2016 Uri attack and the Pathankot attack in 2016 were blamed on Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The joint statement said the two sides are committed to continued exchange of information about sanctions and designations of terror groups and individuals, particularly in light of recent legislative changes in India, and countering the financing and operations of terror organisations, countering radicalism and terrorist use of the internet.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that India-US counter-terrorism cooperation has made considerable progress with enhanced information-sharing and operational cooperation. The joint working groups on counter-terrorism and designation dialogue meet regularly to enable cooperation in pursuing sanctions and designations of terror groups and individuals, the people said.
The joint statement further said the two sides are committed to countering “cross-border movement of terrorists, and prosecuting, rehabilitating, and reintegrating returning terrorist fighters and family members”.
While enhancing cooperation in multilateral forums such as the UN, the two sides reaffirmed their support for early adoption of a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism to strengthen global cooperation.
The ongoing Afghan peace process also figured in the 2+2 meeting, with the joint statement saying the ministers had discussed their “shared interest in promoting a sovereign, peaceful, united, democratic, inclusive, stable and secure Afghanistan, including support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process”.
The US side “applauded India’s development assistance and efforts to build trade linkages and multi-modal connectivity infrastructure for Afghanistan to enhance its regional connectivity to sustain growth and development”.
Jaishankar told the media interaction: “On Afghanistan, India’s stakes in its security and stability are evident, as is our willingness to contribute to international efforts to that end.” Pompeo said the “US values India as a multilateral partner, whether it’s through the Quad [or] making the Afghan peace negotiations successful…”
Focus On China In Colombo
Pompeo departed Delhi and landed in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on Tuesday evening — where the main topic of his discussions with local officials Wednesday will also likely be China. He also plans to visit the Maldives and Indonesia before returning to Washington.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives are deep in Chinese debt, which their governments have used to finance big infrastructure projects, the Americans feel. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo’s visit to the island even before he arrived.