As India, US zero in on key military pacts, best way for bilateral ties to thrive may be to give Donald Trump a really long rope

Media reports indicate that India and the US are on the verge of signing the last of the three US foundational military pacts — the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — that will enable India to share US expertise on geospatial intelligence and enhance accuracy of automated hardware and weapon systems such as cruise, ballistic missiles and armed drones.

That's not all. The recently-held Defence Policy Group (DPG) dialogue in the Pentagon led by Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra on one side and US undersecretary of defence for policy John Rood on the other — an apex bilateral official-level engagement revived after four years on issues related to security, defence trade and military cooperation — also reportedly came close to finalising another critical agreement.

Called the Industrial Security Annexure (ISA), this pact will enable US government and defence industry to share classified and critical military technology with Indian private companies operating in the defence sector. The ISA, as the name suggests, is an annexure to the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that both nations signed 17 years ago. The GSOMIA allowed the US to share technology with the Indian government and government-owned defence firms.

Hindustan Times notes in a report that the US "has already shared the draft agreements of both ISA and BECA with India. Although India initially had reservations on geospatial mapping on grounds of national security, the Narendra Modi government has made up its mind to sign BECA, provided its concerns are addressed".

 As India, US zero in on key military pacts, best way for bilateral ties to thrive may be to give Donald Trump a really long rope

File image of US president Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

With the signing of the ISA and BECA — if and when that happens — India would be a signatory to all military foundational agreements with the US. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) have already been operationalised. BECA and GSOMIA-ISA are imminent. And in 2017, both nations agreed to implement the program for Helicopter Operations from Ships other Than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) to boost maritime security.

These agreements (both signed and impending) are expected to ensure greater logistics sharing, military hardware-software interoperability and technology transfer between the two sides. It is obvious that these pacts, that speak of a close strategic embrace, were preceded by years of hard-nosed negotiations. BECA, which is yet to be inked, has been under discussion for a long time.
It is also useful to note that apart from the ministerial-level 2+2 defense and diplomatic dialogue that institutionalises the strategic and diplomatic component of the relationship at the highest level, both nations have developed a deeper diplomatic, defense, and security cooperation despite the frequent frictions over trade and third-party sanctions.

On continuing engagements, this Brookings piece observes: "Senior bureaucrats and military officials now meet regularly, and their various security dialogues have continued to meet on issues such as defense technology, cyber security, and counterterrorism. Liaisons between the Indian navy and US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, and the countries’ defense innovation units, are being established."

Together with the dovetailing of both nations' Asia policies — US 'Indo-Pacific' and India’s 'Act East' — and the deepening security cooperation in terms of defence deals and counter-terrorism efforts there is acknowledgement in the US, even in the Donald Trump era, that India possesses strategic value for the US in terms of shared interests and India’s geographical, geopolitical and economic parameters. The bilateral partnership, through that lens, is mutually rewarding.

A part of this synergy was highlighted by former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson in a speech delivered in 2017 at the CSIS where he said that "Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy; we share a vision of the future. The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade. Our nations are two bookends of stability on either side of the globe standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world".

If these are the areas of convergences, the divergences are equally challenging and under a US president who prioritises bilateral economic ties over strategic vision — judges allies, partners and adversaries through the same metric — links “fair trade” with national security and is prone to reckless comments and shooting from the hip, the divergences seem to be creating a lot more noise than it should.

The Donald Trump threat should not be underestimated. He is a disruptor and disruptors love nothing more than to upset the status quo and lay new terms of engagement. He has upended the US approach towards India that commentators have described as “strategic altruism” and put it through the prism of transactionalism. This comes with own set of problems and opportunities.
Equally, however, India has also failed to ensure that the strategic partnership — where bilateral interests converge — is immune from the trade and commerce frictions. The Indian strategic community, for instance, fails to accept that if Trump stresses on transactionalism over ‘strategic altruism’, the same is true of India as well.

If the US restricts India’s choices through third party sanctions that hits India’s interests in West Asia, affects its energy needs or upsets its long-standing defence partnership with Russia, then New Delhi must also take the ‘blame’ for not addressing America’s legitimate concerns over trade that has occupied greater salience under Trump.

As strategic affairs expert Ashley Tellis had said at a conclave on bilateral ties in 2017, “India has still not made a complete transition to a market economy where it has learnt to separate commercial disagreements from other parts of the relationship. And, if these difficulties arise against a backdrop where there is no US geopolitical assurance towards India, then the salience of these difficulties would only increase.”

In recent times, as the US became involved in a trade war with China, it was expected that India would be able to take advantage of the opportunities that arise, but there is a growing realisation in New Delhi that India has somehow missed the bus, again. A recent report by State Bank of India notes that New Delhi has been able to make only modest gains from the US-China trade tensions, registering just a 9.46 percent growth in exports to the US to $52.4 billion in 2018-19. The country has exported much more to China in same period where the growth has been 25.6 percent to $16.7 billion.

Part of this anomaly has to do with the fact that US and India have one fundamental incongruity. India’s colonial past prevents it from committing fully towards a transactional relationship with the US. If bilateral ties still suffer from trust issues on India’s part, that has got to a large extent to do with the fact that an insecurity still defines India’s foreign policy since Independence. This insecurity is described in various ways in different decades — non-alignment, strategic autonomy or the more recent and fashionable “multilateralism”.

It will require time to be contextualised, but meanwhile, to minimise the noise that is emanating a little too much from India-US ties (quite possibly triggered by a tweet-happy POTUS), both sides would do well to — as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently during his visit to India — “continue to keep the relationship moored and founded and growing, and then work through that, take down each of those pieces of noise, and do so with frankly as little theater as possible”.

For India, it also means giving Trump a long rope. The US president’s public utterances should be treated with as less attention as possible because Trump is prone to such self-contradictions that every 90° turn will eventually result in a 360° posture. Just the other day he was calling North Korean president a “rocket man”. On Friday, he was found justifying Kim Jong-un’s firing of short range missiles and praising him to the sky.

Trump took even visiting Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan by surprise when he told the media that Modi had approached him to be a mediator in Kashmir. On Thursday, even as Pompeo and Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar was meeting in Bangkok on the sidelines of ASEAN meet, Trump backtracked over the earlier comments and said that: “It’s really up to Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi (to accept the offer of mediation).”

Meanwhile, the diplomatic community in both sides have been furiously at work trying to rationalize, play down and even ignore Trump’s remark. In India, the Opposition raise a stink in the Parliament over it. The short point is simple. The best way for bilateral ties to survive the Trump era (and it looks as if it may extend beyond 2020) will be, for India, to focus on what the US does and ignore what Trump says.

Updated Date: Aug 05, 2019 09:50:01 IST