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US, India sign defence pact after talks focused on countering China’s growing influence

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From left: Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from the US, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar from India. Photo: AFP

India and the United States on Tuesday signed a military agreement that will allow them to share sensitive satellite data, with both sides hailing a new era of cooperation amid efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper were in New Delhi for an annual strategic dialogue with their counterparts, India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, with discussions focusing on stability in the region.

Pompeo and Esper, in a reflection of US President Donald Trump’s efforts to be tough on Beijing, took a harder line on China. At the outset of the meeting, Pompeo said the two sides had “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”.

The US secretary of state said at a later press conference that there had been “robust discussions on the Chinese Communist Party”, adding that it was “no friend to democracy”.

Added Esper: “We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in view of increasing aggression and destabilising activities by China.”

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From left: Esper, Pompeo, Singh and Jaishankar at a press conference in Hyderabad House, New Delhi. Photo: AFP

India, however, did not name China in statements by the two ministers. Said Jaishankar: “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 defence and foreign policy has a larger resonance.

“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, counterterrorism, or creating prosperity.”

The discussions are taking place barely a week before the American presidential elections and at a time when India – a member of the informal four-nation Quad grouping along with the US, Japan and Australia – is in talks to de-escalate military tensions with Beijing, with which it has been locked in a months-long border stand-off that has at times erupted into deadly clashes between troops.

At a news briefing in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged Pompeo “to abandon his Cold War mentality, zero-sum mindset, and stop harping on the ‘China threat’”.

The talks saw India and the US sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), a military pact that will allow them to share geospatial intelligence for use in attacks and better surveillance against adversaries. It will also allow the US to include the latest navigational technology in the fighter jets it supplies to India, and comes amid Esper’s efforts to get India to purchase more US F-18 jets instead of Russian weaponry.

Analysts said the BECA signalled a new level of partnership between the US and India, which has made clear it is non-aligned and has been wary of other powers displacing its influence across South Asia.

The pact is the concluding part of a set of four so-called foundational military agreements through which New Delhi and Washington have pledged mutual defence support to each other, including the use of military bases. The first, the General Security of Military Information Agreement, was signed in 2002, while the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement followed in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Indian military sources said the BECA could pave the way for New Delhi to step up arms purchases from Washington that depended on American geospatial data and satellite imagery, such as surveillance drones and even armed drones.

An Indian government statement after Singh’s meeting with Esper said the two sides had discussed “potential new areas of cooperation”, while Esper welcomed India’s move to extend an invitation to Australia for the upcoming Malabar naval exercises that will also involve the other Quad countries, namely the US and Japan.

The agreement is also expected to be a boost for India’s capabilities while it is locked in its most serious military stand-off with China to date, with thousands of troops from both countries facing off along the countries’ disputed border since May. There is no sign the situation is any closer to being resolved, though there have been no violent flare-ups in the past two months.

These developments are likely to impact India’s response to China amid the current tensions, especially now that a typically harsh winter has set into the Himalayan region, according to a retired major general in the Indian Army who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

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Pompeo and Mark Esper arrive to pay tribute at the National War Memorial in New Delhi. Photo: AP

“The winter makes it very tough for on-ground surveillance by our troops through patrolling. The visibility will be so low that it will be virtually impossible for troops to keep a check on Chinese activities,” he said. “Through such times, precise satellite imagery and surveillance [provided through the] BECA will enable us to not just keep a check on but also respond quicker to any assertiveness.”

Such assistance will also fall into a larger pattern of Washington’s backing and support for New Delhi throughout the border stand-off.

Indian media reports have said that the US had responded positively to Indian demands for logistical assistance to enable it to position its soldiers in the Ladakh region through the winter, during which temperatures routinely fall below minus 40 degrees Celsius. Indian defence journalist Ajai Shukla in a webinar earlier this month said the US had “offered support to the Indian side” at least four times during the stand-off, apart from regular sharing of intelligence.

The US has come out in support of India’s stance politically, with Pompeo earlier in the month saying that India “absolutely need(s) the US as their ally and partner in this fight” because the Chinese have “amassed huge forces” against it. The US has also “strongly opposed” Chinese claims over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, slamming Beijing’s “unilateral attempts to advance territorial claims by incursions”.

Pompeo and Esper are spending two days in New Delhi as part of their five-day Asian tour, on which they will also be visiting Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia. Tuesday’s talks were the third time the two countries have held such high-level discussions – the first 2-plus-2 dialogue was held in New Delhi in September 2018, while another session was held in Washington last December.