The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) at the 2+2 dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers of India and the United States in Delhi on Tuesday marks the end of the prolonged phase of mutual trust-building and sets the stage for more expansive security cooperation. The BECA is the last of the so-called “foundational agreements” that the US wants its defence partners to sign. The BECA, which lets the Indian and US armed forces exchange geospatial information, follows three other agreements that aim to protect the military information shared by the US (GSOMIA), provide mutual logistics support around the world (LEMOA), and facilitate communication between the weapons platforms of the two armed forces (COMCASA). These agreements have been hailed as major advances, but they are, in fact, rather routine. They have been under discussion between Delhi and Washington for nearly two decades.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was signed by the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee back in 2002. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed a full 14 years later in 2016. The Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) was signed in 2018. The missing years in between belonged to the UPA government. To be sure, it was the UPA that opened the space for a bold new strategic engagement with Washington. Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee signed a 10-year framework agreement on defence cooperation with the US in June 2005 and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the India-US civil nuclear initiative in July 2005. The four foundational agreements should have followed easily from the 2005 breakthrough. But the Congress leadership was struck by “buyer’s remorse” — it turned each of these functional agreements into purity tests for India’s non-alignment.
Unlike the Congress leadership, Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed with the armed forces that saw major security gains from these agreements and even, more importantly, the political value of deeper strategic partnership with the US. That has helped clear the brush for more intensive engagement between the armed forces —from interoperability to intelligence-sharing and joint defence research to production of weapons. As the real possibilities for bilateral and multilateral defence and security cooperation open up now, it will be wrong to view the current developments as a tactical response to the immediate military challenges that India confronts vis-a-vis China. India’s defence dialogue with the US has a longer history than either country’s concerns about China. Substantive and institutionalised cooperation between the two defence establishments will serve the long-term interests of a rising India and an America that is restructuring its global security burden. Acting together, Delhi and Washington will be in a better position to shape the regional and global environment in favour of peace and stability.
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