India and the US get into a tighter strategic embrace under the menacing stare of China. But, in making common cause with the US, are we abandoning our strategic autonomy?

by Seema Guha

India’s gradual strategic proximity to the US, reflected in the purchase of military hardware and other forms of defence cooperation, has led experts in recent years to comment on and predict the pace as well as the depth of the process. In recent months, a belligerent China’s muscle-flexing in Asia and the continuing stand-off in Ladakh have been the single biggest factor driving and accelerating such cooperation. The defence asymmetry between India and China, forcing New Delhi to look for ‘external balancing’, is one allied reason. 

By signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the four foundational agreements with the US, New Delhi has sent a strong message to China vis-a-vis a robust Indo-Pacific strategy. The highlight of the 2+2 dialogue between foreign minister S. Jaishankar and defence minister Rajnath Singh and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary Mark Esper on October 27 was the BECA. The significance attached to it can be gauged from the fact that Pompeo and Esper were here with just a week to go before the US presidential polls on November 3. 

China reacted to Pompeo and Esper’s visit with predictable asperity. “We urge him (Pompeo) 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,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in Beijing.

India’s fights, in Ladakh and elsewhere, are its own, but US geostrategic and technical heft is a definite plus. All through the confrontation between the Indian Army and the PLA, Pompeo and senior Trump administration officials have been loudly denouncing Chinese aggression. That has warmed Indian public opinion towards the Trump administration.

However, it took persuasion and initiative from the US to result in the signing of the ‘foundational agreements’ in the past 18 years: General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA, 2002); Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement (LEMOA, 2016); Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA, 2018) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA, 2020). Taken together, they lay the foundation for robust military cooperation. The spur was a deepening, obvious threat to US dominance by China. Successive US administrations have thus courted New Delhi to balance Beijing’s aggressive posturing with India in Asia. At the moment, the strategic interests of India and the US are in sync.

BECA will give India access to US geospatial intelligence—translating into greater accuracy for weapons like missiles and drones. It will make mission planning easier, as it also provides geographical coordinates and feeds in real-­time data. The armed drones India is buying from the US can now be used with devastating effect on enemy targets.

BECA gives India access to US geospatial intel—leading to greater accuracy for missiles and drones.

BECA is being welcomed by many. “Its sheer timing is strategic signalling and indicates the seriousness that India att­aches to the management of the India-China land border. It presupposes, prearranges and ensures increasing int­eroperability between the militaries of India and the US, even if the latter und­ergoes a domestic political transition,” says Vice Admiral (retd) Pradeep Kaushiva. “All this is, however, far from a military alliance which by its very nature dilutes the individual alliance partners’ sovereign options in the larger interests of common objectives,” he adds.

The BJP-government, with its emphasis on security, has always been keen on defence cooperation with the US. The Congress, on the other hand, was wary of closer defence ties. Since 1971, India and the US were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. That year, as war broke out, the US Seventh Fleet set sail towa­rds the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India and indicate President Nixon’s support for Pakistan. The shift in India-US ties has been tectonic since then.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh risked a great deal of his political capital for the India-US civil nuc­lear pact in 2005, seeing it as a way to shed India’s nuclear apartheid status, get state-of-the-art technology from the US and sit on the high table of the nuclear regulatory regimes. But when it came to defence, he baulked. Then defence minister A.K. Antony stonewalled all talk of defence agreements with the US.

While the average Indian believes the Centre is on the right track, many have concerns over India losing its strategic autonomy. “The four so-called foundational accords, including BECA, will transform India’s status from a ‘strategic partner’ to ‘ally’ in all but name. And it will undermine not just India’s strategic autonomy but its sovereignty,’’ says strategic analyst Bharat Karnad. “Consider the four accords. GSOMIA is to protect shared intelligence, except it is not raw data that will be passed on to India but processed intelligence that may leave out material of possible interest but which could be denied to India because it is deemed too sensitive; CISMOA, in the guise of promoting interoperability, will compromise the country’s most secret communications networks, esp­ecially the nuclear command and control links; LEMOA, by permitting US forces to refuel, replenish and pot­entially carry out hostage operations out of Indian military bases, may emb­roil us in American conflicts in the reg­ion and BECA will make India’s strategic targeting hostage to US interests,” he adds. “The trouble is the kind of defence cooperation India seeks is not what’s being offered by the US,” says Karnad. “For example, a priority collaborative project to design and develop in India a jet turbine engine to power combat aircraft was recently shelved by the Trump administration.”

Many analysts believe there should have been more debate before the Modi government decided to go into a huddle with the US. While a large number of former Indian diplomats have welcomed the idea, some are unhappy but are keeping their thoughts to themselves. A few have come out openly against the move. 

Former diplomats like Talmiz Ahmad are concerned about the turn Indian foreign policy is taking. “The trajectory of foreign policy over the past year or so is a matter of concern. The nation seems to be adrift and appears to have abandoned interest in shaping a serious foreign policy vision and a strategy to pursue it,” Ahmad tells Outlook. He feels that while the narrative relating to the background of the ongoing stand-off with China is still wide open, ties with China will remain a priority, since we share a 4,000-km undemarcated border with it. “What is alarming is the panicky rush to embrace America at a time when the Trump administration is dying on its feet. There is no confirmation that what is being rushed through in New Delhi will carry any conviction with the next presidency,’’ he adds.

Ahmad says the Indian approach app­ears to be oblivious to trends in reg­ional geopolitics that will impinge on its long-term interests. “I refer to the strengthening of ties between Russia and China and co-opting into this the cooperative arrangement of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Turkey. In addition, there is inc­reasing alienation from our South Asian neighbours. Instead of addressing these urgent matters, India has acc­epted the US agenda as its own and is fanning off into South China and East China Seas, where our interests are minimal. Our priority should be the geo-politics of Eurasia, where our long-term interests lie,” he points out.

The consequences of getting into the US camp lies in the future, but this shall go down as a watershed moment for Indian foreign and security policy.