Indo-US 2+2 meeting and BECA: Why are the agreements ‘secret’ ?

Agreements are shrouded in secrecy and designated non-public documents. The inevitable conclusion is that these agreements are not in India’s interest, and may draw country into irrevocable compliance

(Left to Right) India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper (File Photo)
(Left to Right) India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper (File Photo)

Sarosh Bana

In what is being widely viewed as a progressive officialising of India’s fealty to the United States, the two sides are signing their fourth and final foundational agreement called BECA, for Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation.

This agreement, being paraded as a pact that will enhance the two-way defence trade and deepen the “seamless military relationship”, will be signed during the annual 2+2 meeting to be held in New Delhi on 26-27 October in tandem between External Affairs and Defence ministers S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh and US Secretaries of State and Defence Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.

Concluding BECA appears to be a mutual priority, as it takes place at a very questionable juncture. The Americans arrive just a week before the US Presidential elections on 3 November, and in the midst of volatile electoral campaigning and the Covid-19 outbreak that the Donald Trump administration has been roundly censured for mishandling.

The Indian side, in turn, hosts the summit even as 1,000 sq km of its territory stands occupied by over 60,000 Chinese PLA troops at the Himalayan borders and the Narendra Modi administration appears patently incapable of retaking it. Also, there are questions whether it is appropriate for an outgoing US government to barrel through such a momentous bilateral accord rather than to leave it to a successor government assuming office just months away.

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 three “strategic” agreements the two sides had signed had been the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) of August 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) of September 2018, and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA) of December 2019 that is read as part of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed by the two countries in 2002.

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

Foundational agreements are those the US signs with countries it has close military ties with. They have much common ground, meant as they are to build basic groundwork and promote interoperability between militaries by creating common standards and systems. They also guide sales and transfers by the US of high-end technologies, so they have a strong commercial element that clearly advantages the US, by far the world’s largest arms exporter.

Despite the openness of American society, where all official decisions and policies are in the public domain, these foundational agreements have been shrouded in secrecy and designated “non-public documents” at the behest of the Modi administration, which has routinely denied government information to Parliament and the public. This raises the question as to what worries it about these accords that it seeks to keep beyond public scrutiny.

The conclusion that may be drawn is that these foundational agreements are not in India’s interest, and may draw the country into irrevocable compliance. People in both countries have the right to know what their respective governments are agreeing to. The absence of this can lead to needless conjecture and suspicions that can best be avoided.

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

LEMOA enables the militaries of India and the US to access the ports and naval bases of either for stopovers, refuelling, repairs or victualling. A supportive commercial shipping information agreement helps their navies work together to defend their territories and to promote and protect global commerce.

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 high-end military platforms the US sells to India, such as the C-130J Super Hercules, C-17 Globemaster and P8I Poseidon. ISA allows the transfer of classified technology and information between private entities of the US and India.

A major concern regarding COMCASA is that it opens India’s military bases to US inspection. While its details are not public, the variant CISMOA signed by the US with South Korea renders maintenance and repair of US equipment exclusive to US personnel, thereby obliging partner countries to bare their defence facilities to them.

Military bases as those in India would have high-technology military assets sourced from various countries, including those not friendly with the US. For instance, nearly 60 per cent of India’s military hardware has been supplied by Russia, including the Akula class nuclear-powered submarine on lease to the Indian Navy.

These so-called foundational agreements are arguably not unique to India and have previously been concluded between the US and non-aligned partners, without concerns over loss of sovereignty. They are also said to merely provide a legal framework for the transfer of logistical supplies, communications security systems, and geospatial data without requiring India to obtain these items and systems from the US.

However, they are also perceived to have the potential to violate the sovereignty of the signatory states by conscripting their allegiance. For instance, while India believes these agreements may empower it to check Chinese expansionism, it will be highly unlikely for the US to intervene, either as a facilitator or more actively, in a conflict situation faced by India. It is also feared that such accords can raise India’s dependence on the US by constraining it into legal obligations like end-use restrictions and bans on modifications.

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, with punitive implications.

Such agreements can also benefit the US more than its partner countries. Amid the Sino-India border tensions, a fully armed US Navy long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, made an unprecedented landing in September 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.

With the AOR (Area of Responsibility) of the Indian navy and air force at best regional in contrast to the global expanse of the US’s, LEMOA benefits will logically tilt to the US military. Indian basing will permit US forces to use supplies, spare parts, services and refuelling.

Arms sales by the US are evidently the crux of these foundational agreements, as they seek to promote military transfers to partner countries as a means to “standardise” their defence systems for easing interoperability. This has been articulated by many a US official, as for instance R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary, Bureau of Political-Military (PM) Affairs.

Speaking on 5 October on ‘Aligning Arms Sales in the Indo-Pacific with US Great Power Competition Objectives’, he maintained that as the US’s partners and allies could not be expected to stand up to China on their own, it was necessary to create an interoperable network with them, so as to enhance their security capabilities through arms sales and security assistance processes.

Almost advocating American monopoly in defence exports, he denounced the US’s adversaries like China and Russia for taking to arms sales as a strategy to exert influence abroad and erode US security partnerships. “Russia and the PRC also like to tout their purported respect for partners’ sovereignty and policies of non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs, drawing a contrast to the United States perennial concerns over the responsible end-use of U.S.-origin military equipment and partners’ respect for human rights,” he observed.

According to Cooper, the US was “far and away the world’s greatest provider of security”, the largest provider of grant security assistance, of over $15 billion a year, and by far the most significant source of defensive equipment, with US defence exports being “almost double of Russia’s, and almost an order of magnitude greater than China’s”.

India is among the largest importers of US arms, its defence imports from the US having surged - from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020 - as the country craves the indulgence of the Trump administration to support, and validate, its aspirations for great power status. New Delhi has hence pivoted its defence spending to the US. Russia, historically India’s largest arms provider, reportedly saw its share of defence exports to India fall from 72 to 56 per cent over 2015-19.

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

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Published: 26 Oct 2020, 9:00 AM