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In boost for India-US defence ties, talks likely on key foundational pact

Sources said this would complete the “troika” of foundational agreements, which will allow India-US defence partnership to be enhanced and completely move away from the traditional technology denial regime.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: February 23, 2020 9:11:00 am
A billboard welcoming US President Donald Trump in Ahmedabad. (Express Photo: Javed Raja)

In what could turn out to be a major outcome in India-US defence cooperation, New Delhi and Washington are likely to move forward on negotiations for the final foundational agreement — the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are expected to discuss fast-tracking the pact and moving ahead on it as early as in March this year.

Officials from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Pentagon are expected to get together to expedite the negotiations.

Sources said this would complete the “troika” of foundational agreements, which will allow India-US defence partnership to be enhanced and completely move away from the traditional technology denial regime.

BECA largely pertains to geo-spatial intelligence requiring sharing information on maps and satellite imaging for defence purposes. The US has already submitted a draft pact, and India has sought more details on the extent of information needed to be shared under this arrangement.

If BECA is ticked off the list, Indian government sources told The Sunday Express that this will complete the chain of compatibility as two — out of three foundational agreements — have already been operationalised by the current Trump administration.

Read | Secret agents from US, night-vision CCTVs as Delhi gets set for Trump

While the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed in the last months of the Barack Obama administration in August 2016, it was actually operationalised under Trump’s regime. It was the first of a set of three military agreements that the US considers “foundational” for a functional military relationship.

The LEMOA allows the military of each country to replenish from the other’s bases.

In September 2018, the second agreement — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — which enables access to advanced technologies from the US was signed. In a sense, it facilitates access to advanced defence systems and enables India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms. The general agreement signed by the US is called the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) but the name was changed to COMCASA to reflect its India-specific nature.

Just before COMCASA was signed, India was elevated to Tier I of the Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA) licence exception list by the US government in August 2018. New Delhi considers the STA-1 list as the “holy grail” of Indo-US defence partnership. Insiders say joining this elite club of NATO and US allies is expected to lead to more high-technology trade and commerce.

Sources said that once BECA is signed, India will move towards a smoother and easier flow of technology from the US.

Having been deprived of high-technology from the Western countries, especially from the 1970s till 1990s, this has been one of India’s core objectives since signing the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008.

In the last few months of Obama’s administration, when Modi went to the US in June 2016, the US administration recognised India as a “major defence partner”. This new status has committed the US to facilitate technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners, and industry collaboration for defence co-production and co-development.

Currently, in the US defence arrangements, there is no country with the status of “major defence partner”. They are either North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies or bilateral treaty allies.

Sources said the US administration, under Trump, has “moved fastest” on the track to operationalise the concept of “major defence partner”, almost in line with NATO allies or bilateral treaty allies.

However, there is a hitch: a US law which aims to penalise countries which source defence technologies from Russia. Source said India has maintained that buying S-400 missile system from Russia is in India’s “national security interests”, and Washington must understand India’s strategic requirements.

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