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BRP Bhaskar: India, US inch closer
September 11, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

India took the penultimate step towards actualisation of its strategic defence partnership with the United States when the two countries signed the third of four foundational agreements at the first joint meeting of their Defence and Foreign Ministers, dubbed 2+2, in New Delhi last week.

The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which they signed, opens the door for transfer of specialised equipment for encrypted communications for US-origin military platforms.

The agreement comes into effect immediately. It will facilitate interoperability between the militaries of the two countries.

Since India has a lot of military equipment originating elsewhere, especially Russia, certain specific provisions have been incorporated in COMCASA to safeguard its national and security interests. However, it also includes a provision for US inspection of Indian bases.

The quest for strategic partnership began when President Bill Clinton visited India in 2000. The first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, which was in power then, signed the first foundational agreement in 2002.

There was no progress during the ten years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. The second foundational agreement was signed by the Narendra Modi government in 2016.

Now only one agreement remains to be signed. It is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which provides for geospatial cooperation.

It was decided at the talks to establish hotlines connecting India’s External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister with their counterparts, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defence.

Modi has been pushing the strategic partnership, viewing it as something that will help realise India’s global aspirations. However, the progress has been slow because of difficulties arising from the different approaches the two countries have followed since long on many issues.

The present forward movement, after two postponements of the inaugural 2+2, comes even as the US is pressing India to stop buying oil from Iran by November and desist from going ahead with its plan to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia.

India is the world’s largest importer of oil, and Iran is one of its major sources of supply. When a previous US regime imposed sanctions on Iran, it had granted India a waiver. India has made heavy investment in the Chabahar port in Iran and is due to get operational control of a part of it next month. It views the new port as its doorway to Central Asia.

Under a US law, the proposed purchase of Russian missile systems will also invite sanctions. India, however, plans to go ahead with it, expecting a waiver. There are reports that waivers will come, but with conditions requiring India to scale down oil purchases from Iran and gradually reduce purchase of weapons from Russia, which has been the country’s major source for military hardware since the Soviet days.

India and the US have several issues to sort out. They are not all related to military ties. Some are trade issues. India has a favourable trade balance with the US, and Washington wants New Delhi to increase purchase of oil and gas and aircraft to wipe it out.

A joint statement issued after the 2+2 said that, apart from defence and trade issues, the ministers discussed cooperation in fighting terrorism, creation of “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” and promotion of sustainable debt-financing in the region.

The last two issues have a bearing on China. One reflects the two sides’ concern over Beijing’s assertion of its growing clout and the other the fear that the countries which are becoming part of its Belt and Road Initiative may get drawn into a debt trap.

As Indian ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushama Swaraj met with Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, China welcomed the dialogue. It, however, made no comment on the security pact.

Some analysts have drawn attention to the one-sided nature of the dialogue with the US laying down the rules and India acquiescing in them. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the only opposition party to express any views on the Indo-US security pact. It said the agreement would compromise India’s defence communications network and bind it down to buying military equipment from the US.

Does the silence of the other parties mean they are quite willing to go along with the govenment? It is more likely they are too engrossed in parochial matters to apply their minds and come to clear conclusions on it.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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