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Indo-Pacific and China to be focus of high-level India-US talks

Military Pact On Intelligence Sharing Likely During Pompeo-Esper New Delhi Visit

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd, left, and USS Howard are moored in Chennai in, 2017 

India and the US are working to finalize a key military pact on geospatial cooperation during high-level talks set for Tuesday, as they intensify engagement with two other members of the so-called Quad grouping -- Australia and Japan -- to challenge what they see an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will visit New Delhi to participate in the third edition of the 'India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue' with their counterparts S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, respectively. Signifying the importance of the meeting is that the Americans are traveling to New Delhi just ahead of the Nov. 3 US Presidential election and amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Both countries are the world's worst hit by COVID-19 with the US having so far reported over 8.4 million infections and India more than 7.7 million.

The dialogue "will entail a comprehensive discussion on crosscutting bilateral issues of mutual interest," India's external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said during a virtual media briefing on Thursday, adding that Pompeo and Esper will also jointly call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their two-day visit starting Monday.

While Srivastava did not mention specific issues that would come up during the talks, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson did. Speaking at a media briefing in Washington, Thompson said the dialogue "will focus on global cooperation, on pandemic response, and challenges in the Indo-Pacific: economic space and energy collaboration, people-to-people ties, and defense and security cooperation." The situation on the India-China border, where the neighbors have been engaged in a tense standoff for months, is also expected to be discussed, he added.

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US President Donald Trump, left, greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as US first lady Melania Trump looks on at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Feb. 25

When asked whether the two sides would sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial cooperation, Thompson said, "We're in the process of finalizing a lot of the discussions right now, and so I know that BECA and other agreements are in the works."

BECA is the last of four agreements on military communication between the two countries and will help enhance interoperability and information sharing in relation to imagery and topographical and hydrological data, among others.

The previous three -- covering areas including security and military information, logistics exchange and communications, compatibility and security -- were signed in 2002, 2016 and 2018, respectively.

"It seems the BECA is being signed so that might be just the highlight [of the 2+2 dialogue]," Harsh V. Pant, head of the strategic studies program at New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Nikkei Asia, pointing out that the pact, which is specifically about geospatial intelligence, is coming at "a very critical time for India" when it has border problems with China.

"The larger message that seems to be going out [is] you have elections in a week [in the U.S.] and yet here is America and India signing a very important pact," he said.

It is believed that BECA will allow India to use US geospatial maps to improve the accuracy of its automated systems, as well as its cruise and ballistic missiles, thus aiding it in precisely targeting potential adversaries.

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India's Akash missiles, mounted on a truck, are displayed during a dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi in January

Ahead of his visit, Pompeo said that from India he will travel to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia and will "work to find out with each of those countries the best ways that we can make sure that we cooperate to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific."

Pompeo earlier this month also met Jaishankar in Tokyo during Quad ministerial talks. "I'm sure that my meetings will also include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party," America's top diplomat said of the upcoming meeting.

Pant observed that Indian foreign policy is evolving in a direction which brings New Delhi and Washington into a "great degree of conversions in the Indo-Pacific," and cited examples such as the country's increasing engagement with other Quad members; Australia in November joining the three-way Malabar naval exercises that India is organizing with Japan and the U.S.; and reports of discussions on an India-Taiwan trade deal which also drew a sharp reaction from China.

"Pompeo will also be going to Sri Lanka and [the] Maldives [and] again these countries are very critical anchors in the larger Indo-Pacific vision, especially in the Indian Ocean," Pant said. He added that India, which at one point would have been very uncomfortable with the American outreach to these countries in its neighborhood, "now views this partnership [with the US as] perhaps more important."

"So, I think it's also very important from that perspective that we are looking at now the two countries cooperating in third countries," Pant added.

It is noteworthy that US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun was also in India on Oct. 12-14 and addressed the India-U. S. Forum, where he described China as "an elephant in the room."

"India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy... We do not seek to change India's traditions," Biegun said. "Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India's ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests, across the Indo-Pacific region."

Separately, Esper, the defense secretary, said at a recent event with the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council that India "will be the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure, in this century."

During the Quad foreign ministers' meeting in Tokyo, Jaishankar too said that the four nations "remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in international seas, and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of disputes."