NEW DELHI: India and the US on Tuesday inked a landmark defence agreement that will allow sharing of high-end military technology, classified satellite data and critical information between the two countries widely believed to have China in its cross-hair.

The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) between the two strategic partners is expected to further boost bilateral defence and military ties and it comes in the backdrop of India’s tense border standoff with China in eastern Ladakh.

That US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper flew to New Delhi to sign the pact with their Indian counterparts on the eve of US elections in which President Donald Trump is struggling to keep the job in a second term has raised questions about the hurry.

Mr Pompeo was to fly later on Tuesday to Sri Lanka for a two-day visit for talks with top Sri Lankan leadership as the US seeks to balance China’s growing influence in the region, analysts said. The visits prompted a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which accused Mr Pompeo of seeking to sow discord among South Asian countries.

In Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry was specifically asked to comment on Mr Pompeo’s visit, given that he had said earlier that it will focus on threats posed by China.

In his response, ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin did not specifically mention India, but attacked Mr Pompeo’s anti-China statements.

“Pompeo’s attacks and accusations against China are nothing new,” Wang said. “These are groundless accusations which reflect that he is clinging to the Cold War mentality and ideological biases. We urge him to abandon the Cold War and the zero-sum game mentality and stop sowing discord between China and regional countries as well as undermining the regional peace and stability.”

For India, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh led the talks and both sides were assisted by their top military and security officials.

The inking of the BECA completes finalisation of four key pacts between the two countries which were identified as crucial to significantly expand the strategic ties.

A key pact called General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was signed by the two countries in 2002. The GSOMIA provides for specific measures to ensure security standards for safeguarding critical information shared by the US with India.

In a major move in 2016, the US had designated India a “Major Defence Partner” intending to elevate defence trade and technology sharing to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners.

The two countries inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 that allows their militaries use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies as well as provide for deeper cooperation.

India and the US signed another pact called COMCASA (Comm­unications Comp­atibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 that provides for interoperability between the two militaries and provides for sale of high end technology from the US to India.

About BECA, officials said the agreement should give India access to classified geo-spatial data as well as critical information having significant military applications from the US.

“We live in a more uncertain world with much greater stresses and sharper faultlines,” Mr Jaishanker said in his assessment of the talks. “For most countries, that means giving security a greater salience in their foreign policy. As major powers, this is even more so in our case.”

The head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, ideological fountainhead of the party in power, had urged India at the weekend to seek cooperation of friendly countries to become more powerful than China, a country which he said had intruded on India’s territory. Mr Pompeo raised the issue of the Sino-Indian border incident with his interlocutors in New Delhi, expressing solidarity and extending support to defend India’s sovereignty.

“At a time when it is particularly important to uphold a rules-based international order, the ability of India and the US to work closely in defence and foreign policy has a larger resonance,” Mr Jaishanker said. “Together, we can make a real difference when it comes to regional and global challenges, whether it is in respecting territorial integrity, promoting maritime domain awareness, countering terrorism or ensuring prosperity.”

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2020