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INDIA & US AGREE ON DEEPER COOPERATION IN INDO-PACIFIC AS RAJNATH MEETS MARK ESPER

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With an increasingly aggressive China flexing its muscles, India and the US Monday agreed to expand their bilateral military relationship, especially in the Indo-Pacific, The Print has learnt.

The agreement came as Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper held an hour-long meeting at the South Block, a day before the nations’ defence and foreign ministers hold the 2+2 ministerial dialogue here Tuesday.

India and the US will sign two pacts Tuesday for deeper cooperation - the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), for geo-spatial cooperation, and the Maritime Information Sharing Technical Arrangement (MISTA).

India, sources said, is also expected to soon hand over a list of military equipment and technology that it is eyeing from the US.

According to government sources, the crux of the discussions between Rajnath and Esper was on the way forward for the bilateral relationship, and it was decided that both countries will focus on deepening cooperation - especially joint services cooperation - with an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific.

“Joint services cooperation has been a key focus. The cooperation will enhance in the coming days. Two key pacts are to be signed tomorrow and this will pave the way for more cooperation in defence, security, intelligence and civil side,” a source in the know said.

Asked if the tensions with China in Ladakh came up for discussion, the source said that the talks focused on expansion of cooperation between India and the US in different spheres and not on any third country. Even so, the source added, the regional security situation did come up for discussion.

Meanwhile, in an official statement, the defence ministry said that both leaders discussed potential new areas of cooperation, both at service-to-service level and at the joint level.

“They called for continuation of existing defence dialogue mechanisms during the pandemic, at all levels, particularly the Military Cooperation Group (MCG). They also discussed requirements of expanding deployments of liaison officers,” it said.

The MCG is meant to review defence cooperation between the Integrated Defence Staff, now part of the office of the Chief of Defence Staff, and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).

The US is keen that India appoints liaison officers to USINDOPACOM and the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

Meanwhile, the statement also said, the two ministers reviewed bilateral defence cooperation spanning military-to-military cooperation, secure communication systems and information sharing, defence trade and industrial issues, and also discussed ways to take bilateral cooperation forward.

Strong partners in Indo-Pacific

At the meeting, Esper is learnt to have mentioned the upcoming Malabar Naval exercise and welcomed the participation of Australia, alongside India, the US, and Japan.

“The focus is on cooperation in all spheres, especially the maritime domain. The area of interest for both India and the US is the Indo-Pacific. Both India and the US will be strong partners,” a second source said, giving an overview of what the 2+2 dialogue aims to achieve.

The US has been very keen on having India on its side as it re-balances to the Indo-Pacific, much to the ire of the Chinese.

The Indo-Pacific includes the Indian Ocean and the western and central Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea, where Chinese aggression has been a matter of concern for multiple nations. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Earlier this month, at an event held by the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council, Esper said India “will be the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure, in this century”.

 ‘Rajnath invites US to join Make in India’

Sources said the Defence Minister also asked Esper to be part of the ‘Make in India’ campaign.

“From a buyer-seller relationship, both sides are looking at a meaningful and sustainable cooperation which benefits both countries. The US has already agreed to work towards this,” the second source mentioned above said.