As both India and the US aim to make a firm announcement about the signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the ‘2+2’ meeting on September 6 in New Delhi, there are five major issues of contention being negotiated between the two sides.
Official sources told The Indian Express that a team of US officials from its Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command will be in Delhi on August 6 and 7 to conduct final negotiations on the text of the pact. The Indian side during these negotiations will comprise officials of External Affairs Ministry, Defence Ministry and armed forces.
The negotiations have proceeded at a fast pace once the Indian side expressed its willingness earlier this year to sign the pact which is meant to provide a legal framework for transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India that would facilitate “interoperability” between their armed forces.
Sources said while New Delhi is keen to have the agreement signed during the ‘2+2’ meeting, the US side seems content if the text is frozen and a concrete announcement about COMCASA included in the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting.
As per sources, the biggest roadblock in the negotiations is India’s demand for a clause which explicitly states that Indian sovereign law takes precedence over COMCASA. Indian officials argue that such a clause was part of the India-US nuclear deal negotiated by the UPA government and there is no reason why Americans can’t make the same concession now.
US officials contend that if a new government in India passes a ‘sovereign’ law which overrides COMCASA at a later stage, it defeats the purpose of signing the agreement. They told Indian interlocutors that such a clause is not required as Indian government can always cancel COMCASA after giving a notice period, besides having the option of amending it at any stage. Besides sovereignty, three major points of negotiations are about assurances India wants included in the text of the agreement.
The first is an assurance that the American side won’t use the access it gets to the military communications system for spying on India. The second is about the misuse of control equipment, as it is part of proprietary American network, which can be used by US military against Indian forces. The third assurance being sought by New Delhi is that the US government should not switch the whole equipment off or shut the Indian military network down as part of a policy decision.
India is insistent on these assurances being inserted in the text, arguing that COMCASA is an India-specific pact, based on Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement, a generic pact which the US signs with other countries. But the Americans contend that the person signing this pact, a senior US military officer, doesn’t have the authority to give those assurances which have to come from a political authority.
The via-media, which is likely to be accepted by both sides, is a separate letter between the two governments which provides these assurances but not as part of the COMCASA text.
This, Americans say, will also not make things difficult for them when they negotiate a similar agreement with other countries, as the US will have to make the text of the agreement public and it could be cited by other countries.
Another contentious issue is about backward compatibility of the equipment under COMCASA, which involves the cycle of upgradation that India wants to have a choice over, besides being guaranteed without any time limit.
The US has argued that having the choice of upgradation negates the purpose of COMCASA as many upgrades are required to overcome vulnerabilities and compromises in the system. The Indians are worried about the cost of these upgrades. The likely solution could include either a specified time limit, after an initial guarantee period, ora cost-sharing model.