In an event reminiscent of the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which marked a deviation from its non-aligned policy, India signed the last of the four fundamental treaties, which were required to make India a “Major Defence Partner” of the United States, intended to elevate defence trade and technology sharing to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners.
Like in 1971, it is a set of circumstances which threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity rather than a drastic departure from strategic autonomy which prompted India to cross the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ to be an ally of the United States.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told the US Congress in June 2016, “The constraints of the past are behind us and foundations of the future are firmly in place. In the lines of Walt Whitman, “The Orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal.” And to that, if I might add, there is a new symphony in play,” after the US had designated India a “Major Defence Partner.”
The US reaction to this declaration was non-committal, characterising it as PM Modi’s vision. After President Donald Trump took over in 2017, the nature of the relationship became uncertain and India distanced itself from the US and decided to reset its relations with China and Russia through informal summits in Wuhan and Mamallapuram with China and in Sochi with Russia.
Nevertheless, the two countries inked three of the fundamental agreements to mark the new relationship.
The first was 2002 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with a particular focus on regional issues.
And the second was the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 that allows the two militaries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies as well as provide for deeper cooperation.
The two countries signed another pact called Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement in (COMCASA) 2018 that provides for interoperability between the two militaries and provides for sale of high-end technology from the US to India.
The remaining agreement which provides for sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps between their militaries remained unsigned.
The game changing pandemic and the extraordinary flexing of muscles by China in different parts of the world, including the India-China border have created an unprecedented situation, which has brought the US and India together to meet the Chinese threat in the whole region from the Indo-Pacific to the Himalayas.
It was in this context that the idea of strengthening the “Quadrilateral” gained ground and the four countries met in Tokyo and virtually adopted it as a mechanism to counter the Chinese moves.
The US openly announced its intention to strengthen the Quad, though India was still coy about provoking China. India felt uncomfortable as the other three countries already had military alliances among themselves.
India, which had hesitated to invite Australia to joint exercises in the past, invited Australia to the ‘Malabar’ exercise, marking another shift in the Indian position.
The holding of the 2+2 talks ten days before the US Presidential election was extraordinary, indicating that both sides were under pressure to give China a firm warning without any delay.
India is still keeping its options open to reset relations in a changed situation. During the talks, the ministers explored ways to further deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, enhance military-to-military ties, and reviewed key regional security challenges including in India’s neighbourhood.
While discussing regional security challenges, the two sides briefly touched upon India’s border row with China in eastern Ladakh.
“We held comprehensive discussion on a range of key issues: Inking of BECA with US is a significant move. Our military to military cooperation with US moving forward very well. We identified projects for joint development of defence equipment. We reaffirmed our commitment to peace and security in Indo-Pacific region,” Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said. “As part of measures to enhance military to military cooperation, now Liaison Officers at each other’s establishments could be leveraged to enhance “information sharing architecture,” the Minister added.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that the situation in the Indo-Pacific was also discussed during the talks. “Our national security convergences have grown; Indo-Pacific was a focus of our discussion,” he said. He was careful not to mention China by name in any public statement.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, considered to be a possible Republican candidate for President in 2024 has been forthright against the Chinese Communist Party in recent months. He expressed his country’s support for India in its efforts to “defend its sovereignty”.
“We stand with India to deal with threats to its sovereignty,” he said. He also paid tribute to the fallen heroes of the Indian army in various conflicts, including those who died in Galwan in June this year.
India recognised the need of an emerging alliance to fight the threats in the Indo-Pacific, but it indicated that it would prefer the region to be multipolar, not an open confrontation between the US and China.
Explaining the 2+2 dialogue, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar said the discussions had a political military content. “Our national security convergences have obviously grown in a more multipolar world. We meet today to not only advance our own interests but to ensure that our bilateral cooperation makes a positive contribution in the world arena,” he said.
Speaking about the conclusion of BECA ahead of the US presidential election, it was pointed out that the presence of the US Secretaries of State and Defence in India despite the election season in the US is a sign of the importance that the US attaches to India. “It is a demonstration to the world at large.”
Apart from the Indo-Pacific region, the two sides also discussed the status of Afghanistan and supported an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
China reacted strongly to the accusations of the US Secretary of State.
“These are groundless accusations which reflect he is clinging to Cold War mentality and ideological biases. We urge him to abandon the Cold War and zero sum game mentality, stop sowing discord between China and regional countries as well as undermining regional peace and stability,” said a Chinese spokesman. But the expectation is that the most recent moves by India and the US would have a sobering impact on the Chinese as they consider disengagement on the Line of Actual Control.
The outcome of the US elections and the future course of COVID-19 will determine the fate of the new architecture in the Indo-Pacific, following the strengthening of the Quad, of which the new India-US relationship is an integral part.
Much depends on how China reads the shifting tea leaves in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.