by Indrani Bagchi

India and the US began a journey in 1998, with the first conversation between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott. This week, the two countries signed off on Book 1 of that journey, when India signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the ‘foundational agreements’ which seals defence interoperability between the two sides, and brings us all out of the closet.

The fact that India managed to close this deal with the US a week before they elect another president is significant in and of itself. For those hyperventilating about doing it in the dying days of the Trump administration, they fail to read the moment. India has had a good run with President Donald Trump and it was important to rack up this foreign policy achievement for both sides. At a time of a tense standoff with China, a well-oiled India-US interoperability is critical.

In an interview to this paper, foreign minister S Jaishankar had warned China should not view India through the US lens. In a sense, India has also freed itself from an unspoken Chinese veto. The new and improved Quad, Malabar exercises with Australia in it, an obviously closer military embrace and this visible show at 2+2 is India exercising choices and going through with them.

In a different age, Indian officials would have held back on the deal until a new administration took charge in Washington. Reasons would have mostly centred around the belief that such a deal is akin to India bestowing favours, and let’s do it with the new guys. From all accounts, many in this government tried their best – it tells you how far we have to travel when an aggressive China, chewing up Indian territory, invites less suspicion among our babus than America!

Trump may or may not be history next week. Through his chaotic four years, the one thing which stood out was the remarkable consistency of his China policy, that saw China for exactly what it is and what it aims to be. Trump also picked up on the Indo-Pacific as a premier geo-strategic policy to pursue, both of which has had strong convergence with Indian interests. In fact, he undertook the sharpest course correction on China in recent US history.

Joe Biden, whose chances look increasingly bright, has been encouraging on India, and refreshingly realistic on China. Bill Burns, senior adviser to Biden, reflected their current policy in recent remarks. “Preventing China’s rise is beyond America’s capacity, and our economies are too entangled to decouple. The US can, however, shape the environment into which China rises, taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific – from Japan and South Korea to a rising India – and engaging the Chinese leadership directly…” We’ll see how that goes when the rubber hits the road.

Biden will be facing a very different China from where he left it four years ago. As is India. This is a China unafraid to bare its teeth – it has been in a hyper-aggressive mode certainly since the beginning of 2020. All the criticism raining down on China from the coronavirus to 5G is apparently bouncing off.

A Biden administration could, like previous Democrat ones, give India a hard time on things like human rights and minority rights. India will probably take a few bullets there, just as it bears the scars of Trump’s trade craziness over the past four years. Hopefully New Delhi will build its own means to deal with an activist US – if the Congress is heavily Democrat-led, you could worry about the “progressives” pushing the bilateral agenda. Otherwise Biden is as centrist as they come.

He has stacked up an impressive foreign policy team, led by the likes of Anthony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and including Kurt Campbell, Ely Ratner and a host of Washington’s foreign policy elite. Blinken said recently, “Strengthening and deepening the relationship with India is going to be a very high priority. It’s hugely important to the future of the Indo-Pacific and the kind of order we all want; it’s fair, stable and hopefully increasingly democratic and it’s vital to being able to tackle some of these big global challenges.”

Walking with a superpower has not been easy for anyone, and won’t be for us either. At every new level, there will be more hoops to jump through. It will be for India to stay ahead of the game.

You might think the interoperability debate is behind us – until the US Congress sits down in 2021 to decide whether to impose CAATSA sanctions on India when we take delivery of S-400 from Russia. On the other hand President Vladimir Putin’s remarks last week about a possible military alliance with China last week will give India pause – “It’s certainly imaginable. I’m not only talking about sale and purchase of military products, but the sharing of technologies, which is more important.”

If we look a little deeper though, Russia and the US are in the process of negotiating a new 21st century arms control agreement that aims to bring China into the tent, and has implications for India. India won’t play this game by staying at the margins.

However, India has walked that extra mile on this relationship and that’s important. Behind an obvious shift in mindset, there is an acknowledgment of another, more sobering, reality – that India’s global stardom is not pre-destined. That India needs to work hardest to ensure its own rise. In other words, India’s best foreign policy is within. BECA shows that lesson may be sinking into South and North Blocks.