The United States and India finally concluded their twice delayed 2+2 ministerial dialogue in New Delhi, that marked the signing of historic Communications Compatibility and Security Cooperation Agreement (COMCASA) between two countries.
However, the road to such close cooperation wasn’t an easy ride given the obvious Indian skepticism towards the U.S geopolitical intentions and interventions in the South Asian region since the Cold-War period.
Over the years, following the U.S India strategic rapprochement that begun with the signing of the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement in 2005, the bilateral relationship has been on the upward trajectory. This momentum was obvious as India’s preferred politico-cultural choice of democracy finds a natural resonance with that of the United States.
The Foundational Agreements of Close Security Relationship
The U.S has been insistence with India to sign three foundational defense agreements i.e Logistic Support Agreement (LSA), Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation, to strengthen defense cooperation and create a ground for interoperability between two militaries.
But, it took thirteen years, some border skirmish with China and the development of a geostrategic region i.e Indo-Pacific, to make India think about it. India signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the U.S in 2016. It is an India specific version of LSA that would facilitate port calls, joint military exercises, training, disaster relief operations and bilateral access to logistical facilities, among others to be decided on a case by case basis.
The importance of such an agreement is that it would help Indian and U.S naval vessels share necessary logistics during long-distance deployment of their vessels in blue waters of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. In addition to that India-US had also signed Helicopter Support Other than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) agreement in 2017 on the sidelines of ASEAN Defense Ministers Meet in Manila, Philippines.
The purpose of this agreement was to expand maritime cooperation in distant and nearby seas, by providing each other’s shipborne choppers to land on their naval vessels in case of an emergency including relief and repair operations. But, CISMOA was difficult to make through, as it involved sharing of critical and sensitive data that can be used against the country.
But, the intermittent military standoffs between India and China along 3,488 km of land border and an increasing presence of PLAN naval vessels in and around the Indian Ocean region, have forced India to take a stand.
Hence, on September 6, it signed Communications Compatibility and Security (COMCASA) Agreement with the U.S, paving the way for the transfer of secure communication systems to be used onboard airborne platforms such as C-17 Globemaster III, C-130 J Super Hercules operated by Indian Airforce and P-8i Poseidon Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft operated by Indian Navy.
This was an India specific version of CISMOA, providing exclusive assurance to the Indian government of protection and use of data obtained from India owned airborne platforms. The discussion on the third foundational agreement BECA is under discussion and will take further time to come to terms. It is because BECA involves sharing of critical geographical intelligence (GEOINT) that includes satellite imagery and topographical data, that would reveal India’s sensitive military installations.
Emerging Indo-Pacific Alignment
The development comes in the face of recent accord of Strategic Trade Authorization (STA) category 1 status to India, placing it at par with 29 NATO allies and three Asian allies- Japan, South Korea, and Australia, for the sale of hi-tech critical weaponry including combat and communications platforms.
The strategic community in both countries is optimistic about the strategic partnership, which has seen a substantial realization of “Major Defense” partner status placed upon India by the US Congress through its National Defense Authorization Act, 2019. In the recent 2+2 meeting, India asked U.S to designate an official for in the U.S Department of Defense for better cooperation and coordination, to which the U.S has obliged. If seen collectively, the building blocks necessary for close cooperation in the Indo-Pacific geostrategic region are being placed gradually.
More importantly, the U.S has renamed its US PACOM as US INDOPACIFIC Command. The rechristened theatre command has been spearheading the defense diplomacy and military cooperation in the region that includes quadrilateral dialogue. Another important aspect of this close cooperation is that the key QUAD countries (U.S, India, Japan, and Australia) maintain the centrality of ASEAN countries at the heart of the Indo-Pacific geostrategic construct, providing them much need room to maneuver.
India, on its part with limited military and economic capabilities, is bound to align, while preserving its foreign policy independence to counter Chinese influence in the immediate Indian Ocean and extended Pacific Ocean. This is crucial to its national goals.
(This article was originally published by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and can be found here )