The much-anticipated inaugural session of the 2+2 strategic defence dialogue which was postponed twice, kick started in New Delhi culminated in signing of a landmark COMCASA agreement (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement). The inaugural Ministerial level talks initiated by Prime Minister Modi on his visit to Washington in 2017 with tacit support of President Trump provided new impetus to Indo-US bilateral ties. Reflecting greater strategic convergences between India and the US, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman hosted their counterparts from US, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis on September 6th. As a mark of friendship and respect Indian Ministers received US counterparts at the airport.
Since the turn of the century bolstering trust and friendship both countries first signed the General Security Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) one of the foundational agreements in 2002. Amidst apprehensions and domestic hesitations, India signed the landmark civil nuclear agreement in 2008 which eventually enabled a nuclear waiver for India at NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group). For a comprehensive defence partnership, US sought India to sign four foundational agreements for enhancing defence cooperation. Despite strategic concerns, overcoming traditional hesitations, India signed another foundation agreement the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), otherwise termed as Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) which was suitably tweaked by the US to address Indian concerns in 2016.
Ever since Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” began to stumble, US sought to accelerate cooperation and alignment with India. With looming Chinese belligerent presence threatening to engulf regional stability, countries began to expedite maritime cooperation and paved way for revival of Quad 2.0 towards the end of 2017. Subsequently, America began to replace the Asia-Pacific term in all official documents with Indo-Pacific. In a symbolic move to signal India’s importance to US military a day before Shangri La Dialogue, America renamed US Pacific command or PACOM as “US Indo-Pacific Command” or IndoPaCom. Resonating with America’s strategic policy towards region’s security, Prime Minister Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue stressed the importance of “rules-based international order”. Trump administration unveiling its Indo-Pacific strategy reposed interest in cultivating ties with partners to promote peace and security for advancing free and open Indo-Pacific. Mike Pompeo even travelled to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia to advance economic and security interest in the region and pledged $113 million to bolster the strategy.
To strengthen bilateral security cooperation, in December 2016, outgoing President Obama designated India as “major defense partner”. In a major fillip to India’s major defense partner status, US department of Commerce under Trump administration has granted “Strategic Trade Authorization Level” (STA-1), on par with NATO allies. India is the third country after Japan and South Korea to get this status. STA-1 entitles India to import sensitive advanced technologies from American companies. US conferred this status to India after New Delhi gained membership into three nuclear regimes- Wassenaar Agreement, Australian Group and Missile Technology Control Regime and channelized its national export control regime. This new status will augur well for bilateral defence partnership by removing restrains on US companies for exporting dual-use items to India. Soon, newly enacted National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) 2019 reaffirmed India’s status.
In the past 17 years, India’s defence imports from US has increased from near zero to staggering $18 billion. These purchases include Lockheed Martin C-130 J Super Hercules special mission transport, Boeing P-8I long range maritime reconnaissance, anti-submarine jets, heavy transport aircraft C-17 Globe master III. But India doesn’t have access to the encrypted radio network that can ensure interoperability of all these aircrafts or in other words, “a family of radios for military aircraft that provides two-way voice and data communications across modes”. Despite being huge importer of western sourced equipment, India was plagued by a scenario of no cross talk between equipment procured from different countries like Israel, France which essentially have same communication standard. By signing COMCASA, India can overcome this major hurdle in communication as US will now facilitate installation of high-end secured communication equipment on military platforms sold to India. This will improve interoperability of equipment during military exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. US has a system in place that can integrate sensors, weapons systems and other support capabilities making tactical communication easy. This in turn would enhance India’s defence preparedness. Abhijit Iyer-Mitra in his article indicates, “This COMCASA not only improves India’s ability to fight along side US Navy better, but also alongside several other global navies with similar equipment that are major players in the Indo-Pacific such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore”.
During the Doklam standoff India hugely benefitted from the US intelligence inputs regarding the deployment of Chinese personnel. Undeniably US has robust communication system and India would stand to gain immensely by signing COMCASA as it can access the data in real-time without time lag especially during critical situations. Despite these obvious advantages, India harbours legitimate fears of America penetrating Indian systems and of US with holding or stalling communications. Critics even questioned the intent of BJP government into buying America’s assurances. To address India-specific issues, US has changed this military agreement that provides the legal framework for interoperability called the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) to COMCASA. Strategists even raised doubts that by signing COMCASA whether India is compromising with its strategic autonomy and is close to becoming part of Asian NATO. But putting end to these apprehensions, government assured, “While the text of COMCASA is confidential, we have ensured that we have full access to the relevant equipment and there will be no disruptions. Data acquired through such systems cannot be disclosed or transferred to any person or entity without India’s consent”. In a report for the Times of India, Indrani Bagchi indicated three India-specific assurances are now part of COMCASA- that there would be no disruption during life cycle of equipment, India specific data will not be disclosed or transferred and national security issues will be addressed.
With India planning to purchase armed sea Guardian drones from US, in absence of COMCASA, the equipment will lack “precision Global Positioning System (GPS) gear and state of the art guidance”. Given all these advantages India has signed COMCASA after several rounds of negotiations overcoming decades of entrenched inhibitions. With this India has signed three of the four foundational agreements baring Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial cooperation (BECA). COMCASA will be a gamechanger and NDA regime must be hailed for its perspicacity and gumption.
Just days ahead of 2+2 dialogue, China’s official mouth piece Global Times in a series of articles cautioned, “it’s not best choice for India to become strategic follower of the US”. Clearly inconvenienced by US pinning down on India as best choice for the US to counterbalance China in the region, China reminded that Indo-China relations have been positive since Wuhan Summit and hence both countries should “ponder how to better cooperate”. In another op-Ed, Global Times believed India should stay away from forging strategic ties with the US as “any benefits will be outweighed by the costs to India”. It suggested, “India needs to be aware that without paying heed to Indian concerns, the US’s strategy is hampering not aiding, India’s domestic development. Rather than falling victim to the US purpose of containing rise, it is better for India to look to China for ways of self-development. What India can learn from China is that its ability to stand on its feet will determine its place in Asia and the World”. Needless to say, China’s fulminations suffice to indicate that an extensive Indo-US strategic engagement can be a tipping point in regional balance of power.
Aside ramping up defence partnership, successful first round of the ministerial talks laid ground for a comprehensive cooperation for collaborating on various regional and global issues in bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral formats. This included the commitment for working towards prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan. Both sides have agreed to begin negotiations on Industrial Security Annex (ISA), tri-services exercises and increase exchange of personnel between two militaries. After Russia, America will be second country with which India will be holding tri-service drills. As a part of Major Defense Partner designation, US has pledged to assist India in the areas of co-production, innovation, expand intelligence sharing and defence industry cooperation and collaboration. Instead of restraining defence cooperation to narrow buyer-seller relationship, US has committed to “support further expansion in two-way trade in defence items and defence manufacturing supply chain linkages” taking the partnership to next realm.
In a major fillip to counter terrorism cooperation, on the eve of 10 years of 26/11 US asked Pakistan to expedite perpetrators of Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri terrorist attacks. Both countries reached consensus on issues of global and regional importance. US reiterated its support towards India’s accession to Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Ministers agreed to enhance bilateral trade, investment and innovation. To this end India sought a liberal H-1B regime.
Transactional president Trump obsessed with trade imbalances imposed trade tariffs against all countries and India hasn’t been a significant exception. Even America’s traditional allies have been at the receiving end of Trump’s attempts to rewrite America’s foreign policy. But unlike other countries India’s trade surplus is mere $23 billion and with India planning to make defence purchases from the US, the deficit will be plugged. But characteristically, Trump’s policies towards Pakistan and China hit right cords in India and found greater congruence.
For all the perceptible strategic consonance, ructions over economic sanctions on Russia and Iran critically impacted Indian interests. Defence purchases from Russia, crucial Oil imports and strategic Chabahar port development for trade with Afghanistan circumventing Pakistan are affected by the sanctions. Russia has been longstanding supplier of defence supplies to India. India’s purchase of advanced $5.5 billion S-400 Triumf Air defence missile system is now mired by the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). Despite these irritants, Ministers on both sides worked towards engaging on issues of convergence. Insiders reported that purchases for traditional platforms from Russia may not invite sanctions, purchase of sophisticated weaponry will be sanctioned. This issue would remain a sore point between both countries. But India has made it clear that it will go ahead with purchase of S-400.
With regard to oil purchases, America indicated that is expects countries to cut down Iranian imports to zero by November 4th. But India being an energy-reliant country importing almost 80% of oil, refused to accept. New Delhi is now silently working on alternative payment mechanism. India’s UCO bank and Bank Pasargad of Iran are mulling a tie-up. India and Iran are deliberating a barter mechanism similar to the one they had during sanctions regime under Obama. India would make payment to Iranian oil imports in terms of food grains, pharmaceuticals and engineering goods. Reports indicate that Iran is all set to handover Chabahar port for operation in a month. Going by past experience, India and US will eventually reach a middle ground over Chabahar considering America’s special appreciation towards New Delhi’s assistance to Afghanistan. But shrouded by cold war hangover strategists expressed concerns over India’s heightened military engagement with America. In the glitter of Indo-US 2+2 dialogue, Iranian Roads and Urban Development Minister’s visit to India on the same day failed to garner any attention. Upholding the importance of longstanding energy ties with Iran, New Delhi announced that it will not be able to reduce Oil purchases from Iran.
Indo-US strategic alignment over wide range of issues is definitely a shot in arm for India’s aspirations to play a larger role in regional peace and security.
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