The stage is set for the signing of the crucial Indo-US Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — which pertains to geo-spatial intelligence, sharing information on maps and satellite images for defence purposes — as US Defence Secretary Mark T Esper and Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo arrived in Delhi Monday.
They started talks with their counterparts, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, in what is being seen as a strong reinforcement of the bilateral relationship and an unambiguous signal of renewal and continuity a week before the US Presidential elections.
“Today’s discussions will add new vigour to India-US defence relations and mutual cooperation,” Singh tweeted after his meeting with Esper which lasted for about an hour in South Block. Esper was received by Singh for the ceremonial tri-services guard of honour. The talks, Singh said, were “aimed at further deepening defence cooperation in a wide range of areas.”
The Defence Ministry said that the two ministers “expressed satisfaction that (an) agreement of BECA will be signed during the visit”. Once signed, BECA will be one of the three foundational agreements, signed in the last four years, enabling closer military ties.
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Singh was accompanied by Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, Army Chief Gen M M Naravane, Air Chief Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria, Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and other senior officials.
According to a Defence ministry statement, the two ministers reviewed bilateral defence cooperation in a range of areas. “Both the Ministers discussed potential new areas of cooperation, both at Service to Service level and at the joint level. They called for continuation of existing defence dialogue mechanisms during the pandemic, at all levels, particularly the Military Cooperation Group (MCG). They also discussed requirements of expanding deployments of liaison officers,” the statement said.
During the discussions, Singh underlined defence sector initiatives under Atmanirbhar Bharat and invited US companies to tap into the “liberalised policies” and the “favourable Defence Industry ecosystem in India”, the statement said.
Esper was accompanied by US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster and senior officials from the Pentagon.
In an apparent reference to China, sources said the Jaishankar-Pompeo meeting in Hyderabad House touched upon the “global situation and its contemporary challenges” and discussed “shared concerns and interests including stability and security in Asia.” Sources added that specific issues will be taken up when the four ministers meet again Tuesday for the 3rd Indo-US 2+2 ministerial meeting — a rare in-person meeting when most diplomatic meetings are through video-conferencing.
This also assumes significance since India and China are locked in a border standoff in eastern Ladakh for more than five months and soldiers from both sides are looking at deployment along the border in the harsh winter ahead. The US has been extremely critical of Chinese aggression along the LAC in the last four months with Pompeo leading from the front.
The signing of BECA will allow India to use US geospatial intelligence and enhance accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. It will give access to topographical and aeronautical data and advanced products which will aid navigation and targeting. This could be key for Air Force-to-Air Force cooperation between India and the US.
Sources said that the call between Pompeo and Jaishankar in June — after the June 15 Galwan incident —set the stage and gave a political impetus to the already existing security cooperation apparatus in place. Also, Esper had called up Rajnath Singh in the second week of July.
The cooperation includes sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts, and data exchange on Chinese troops and weapons deployment along the 3,488-km India-China LAC.
MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said Monday that the 2+2 dialogue tomorrow has been “significant in propelling India-US ties forward”. The first edition of the dialogue took place in Delhi in September 2018, the last one was in Washington December 2019.
After the 2+2 meeting, Esper and Pompeo will jointly call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and have a meeting with NSA Ajit Doval.
There will be discussions with other government and business leaders on ways to advance the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.
During the 2+2 dialogue, expanding cooperation between the two militaries will be high on agenda. This includes the two navies, which play a critical role in ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific.
In July 2020, the Indian Navy successfully completed a passing exercise with the US Navy as the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group transited through the Indian Ocean Region.
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