India as a junior military ally of the US: Does it help or harm us? 

US has finally convinced India to sign their third and final foundational agreement called BECA which is being touted as a pact that will deepen the “cooperation” between armed forces of two countries

India as a junior military ally of the US: Does it help or harm us? 

Sarosh Bana

The United States has finally convinced India to sign their third and final foundational agreement called BECA( Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation), which is being touted as the pact that will deepen the “cooperation” between the armed forces of the two countries.

The signing of this agreement takes place during the annual 2+2 meeting that will be held in New Delhi on 26-27 October in tandem between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and India’s External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar, and between US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and India’s Defence minister Rajnath Singh. Both administrations appear keen on concluding BECA on priority at this juncture.

After all, the US officials arrive just a week before the US Presidential elections on 3 November and in the bustle of electoral campaigning back home, as also in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak that the Donald Trump administration has been roundly censured for mishandling.

The Indian side is simultaneously hosting the summit at the time of the perilous standoff with China in eastern Ladakh and the Narendra Modi administration’s manifest inability to resolve it. Also, there are questions whether it is appropriate for an outgoing US government to barrel through such a momentous bilateral accord rather than leaving it to a successor government that will assume office just months away

India as a junior military ally of the US: Does it help or harm us? 

This will be the third such 2+2 dialogue, the first having been held in New Delhi in 2018 and the second, in Washington, DC, last year.

The previous two “strategic” agreements the two sides had signed had been the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) of August 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) of September 2018. All the three deals were in negotiations for years and aim at a “seamless military relationship” between the two sides.

Originally known as the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Washington changed the nomenclature to LEMOA to make it India-specific. It similarly amended the original nomenclature of CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) to COMCASA.

While LEMOA enables the US Navy to replenish supplies from Indian navy logistics platforms, COMCASA provides a legal framework for the transfer by the US to India of highly sensitive communication security equipment and codes for real-time operational information. It grants India access to the big data base of American intelligence, including real-time imagery, as also to the highly coded communication systems equipping the highend military platforms the US sells to India, such as the C-130J Super Hercules, C-17 Globemaster and P8I Poseidon.

Customised for India again, BECA, once signed, will also facilitate the US’s sharing of sensitive data with India. This agreement provides access to both countries to named military infrastructure in either of them for logistics support, including refuelling, and moreover enables them to share geospatial information and intelligence helpful for defence-related issues. It will additionally allow the US to share satellite and other sensor data with India in order to improve the Indian military’s targeting and navigation capabilities, as, for instance, in helping Indian missiles to be more accurate.

The haste in endorsing BECA is being officially explained as the US’s prioritising of closer ties with India that was reaffirmed by Prime Minster Modi and President Trump’s joint ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston in September 2019. Around that time, the US also hosted the Inaugural Quad Ministerial Meeting in New York that included India, Australia and Japan and which has been intended as a counterbalance to China’s powerplay in the Indo-Pacific.

The Modi government has invited Australia to participate in the Malabar exercises and whose inclusion would make this a Quad naval event. India, the US and Japan have confirmed participation in these exercises that will take place in two stages on India’s eastern coast, from 3 to 6 November, and western seaboard, from 17 to 20 November. The 2019 exercise had taken place off the coast of Japan.

It has been argued that the LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA agreements have previously been concluded between the US and non-aligned partners, without concerns over loss of sovereignty. They are also said to be common for all countries that receive US high technology and are not unique to India, and that they merely provide a legal framework for the transfer of logistical supplies, communications security systems, and geospatial data, respectively, without requiring India to obtain these items and systems from the US. There is, however, the other perception that these so-called foundational agreements are clearly not in India’s interest as they have the potential to violate the sovereignty of the signatory states by conscripting their allegiance.

While it has been officially claimed that these agreements may fortify India in checking Chinese expansionism, for instance, it will be a highly unlikely scenario of American forces deploying with Indian forces in a conflict situation. Binding Indian forces to US codes and operating procedures is hence believed to be unnecessary, when India can well have its own speech secrecy and communication and data transfer equipment. There is also the view that such accords can heighten India’s dependence on the US by constraining it within legal obligations like end-use restrictions and bans on modifications.

Agreements like COMCASA and BECA can also fall short in promoting Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). There are other means of sharing information to achieve MDA on a case-by-case basis, such as a recently concluded technical arrangement to share white hull shipping data. Distinction is drawn between ‘white hull’, which are coast guard-type forces, and ‘grey hulls’ that are regular navy forces. An inherent catch in such agreements is that as they enhance access of signatory countries to US technology, they also incontrovertibly strongarm them into the US legal system.

Another anxiety is that such agreements often benefit the US far more than its partner countries. Amid border tensions between India and China, a fully armed US Navy long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, recently made an unprecedented land ing at India’s strategic tri-services command base in Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands for a first time refuelling there. The refuelling and victualising was carried out under LEMOA.

For all its bluster of becoming a selfmade world power with a $5 trillion economy in the next five years, India is backing into a situation where it is committing itself to gratifying Washington, which has been confident of India’s deepening allegiance. Hailing the Modi government’s re-election in May 2019, the Trump administration had described India as a ‘great ally’ of the US and expressed resolve to work closely with the Prime Minister. In response to a question, then State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus had told reporters, “We, of course, will work closely with Modi, as we have many times.”

India’s defence imports have thus only grown, as it craves the indulgence of an impulsive Trump administration to support, and validate, its aspirations for great power status. The Ministry of Defence acknowledges that military cooperation has become the key driver of bilateral relations that are now being elevated “to a new level”. The Trump administration has been vastly advantaged by its outreach to India, which, in turn, is driven to coddle its imperious partner through costly arms deals that help sustain jobs in the US’s military industry and keep production lines running.

In 2016, the US recognised India as a Major Defence Partner (MDP) to liberalise transfers of arms and technologies to it. The US also conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. Consolidating these links was the US Senate’s passing of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) that confers on India the status of a NATO ally. The legislation not only provides for increased cooperation in the Indian Ocean in maritime security, counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance, but also opens up more advanced weaponry and sensitive technologies for India.

It is, however, the US’s strategic partnership with India that Washington is keen on leveraging in an effort to enlist it in balancing the rise of China in the larger Indo-Pacific domain. The first American President to have visited India twice during his tenure, Obama had committed to forging deeper cooperation with India that he called “a 21stcentury centre of influence”. There is little doubt that overtures like the foundational agreements and strategic partnership have made New Delhi increasingly beholden to Washington. However, apart from the Indian government, Prime Minister Modi too is personally beholden to the US.

The Obama administration had bestowed upon him global legitimacy upon becoming Prime Minister in 2014, by revoking the ban on his entry into the US imposed since 2005. Modi had been denied visa to the US and, by extension, to the Western world, for his failure to end the 2002 communal riots in his home-state of Gujarat when he was its Chief Minister. The violence had claimed 1,044 lives. Modi had been the only person so acted against under a little-known US law of 1998 that makes foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas.

Modi made up for lost time once the ban was withdrawn, visiting the US more times than to any other country as head of government.

(The writer is Executive Editor, Business India, & Regional Editor, Asia Pacific, Naval Forces)

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