Relationship in defence architecture emerged as a major pillar of India-U.S. strategic partnership since 2005

Let me remove the misplaced belief that the latest India US agreement known as BECA is merely a hastily drawn pact between The USA and India as a strategic stratagem to ward off the Chinese engaged in the offensive at the borders at Line of Actual Control between India and China. This Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement with the acronym BECA , along with the two agreements signed earlier — the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — completes a troika of “foundational pacts” for deep military cooperation between the two countries. It may have come about now but there is a sizable history of its evolution dating back to the Year 2005. This relationship in the Defence architecture emerged as a major pillar of India-U.S. strategic partnership when the ‘New Framework for India-U.S. Defense Relations’ was signed in 2005 and the resulting intensification in defence trade, joint exercises, personnel exchanges, collaboration and cooperation in maritime security and counter-piracy, and exchanges between each of the three services. The Defence Framework Agreement was updated and renewed for another 10 years in June 2015.

And well before 2005, the US and Indian Navies have been participating in bilateral joint exercises termed Malabar since 1992. Originally begun in 1992 as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States, Japan became a permanent partner in 2015. It has now evolved as a quadrilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan , Australia, and India as permanent partners. Past non-permanent participant was Singapore. The exercises range from fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers and include Maritime Interdiction Operations. With Australia joining in the drills on Indian invitation in 2020, it will be the first time all members of the regional grouping known as the Quad will be engaging militarily. 23 Editions of the Malabar have been held so far and the 24th edition, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is expected to be held in mid-November 2020.

Over and above, the Indian Air Force has been holding joint exercises termed Cope India with the US Air Force since 2004 in the Indian skies . The exercises were repeated in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2018. And we can not overlook the well publicized fact that the IAF took its Aerial Combat Teams to USA, twice, to participate in Exercise Red Flag and achieved formidable success.

In 2017 , defence acquisitions from US had crossed over an aggregate worth over US$ 13 billion. They included 13 C 130 J Hercules aircraft, 10 C -17 Globemaster, 12 P-8 Poseidon aircraft from Boeing, 22 AH 64 Apache helicopters, 15 CH 47 Chinook helicopters, 145 M777 Howitzers. All military systems except for the P-8 Poseidon aircraft were acquired through the US Armed Forces Military Sales route. As to JVs, way back in 2012, Tata Advanced System Ltd (TASL) and Lockheed Martin established a JV to produce C 130 airframes components. TASL also established a JV with M/s Sikorsky to produce S-92 helicopter cabins. The United States agreed to supply India with the General Atomics MQ-9 Guardian/Predator-B long-range unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). This UCAV equipped with advanced marine avionics has both air and sea variants and can be armed with up to four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs.

There are more than 50 bilateral dialogue mechanisms between the two governments and a stable wide architecture has been raised covering very important strategic issues of Space, Nuclear, Counter Terrorism and Energy among other issues.

It is quite evident now that India-U.S. bilateral relations have developed into a "global strategic partnership", and there is formidable consonance on “shared democratic values and increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues”.

Although we must acknowledge that with the signing of this pact the relationship has fructified through a very natural paradigm at a situation when India faces a very serious security issue which is likely to very deeply afflict its sovereignty if allowed to go unchecked . Whilst similar Chinese actions have rung alarm bells and there are other ominous echoes being heard through the expanse of Asia Pacific. At the heart of this dispute is the Nine Dash Line area claimed by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which covers most of the South China Sea and aggressively overlaps Exclusive Economic Zones of Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The Chinese rhetoric smells of enforcement of maritime control of tracts of the sea they claim. Throughout the period of deliberation by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague on the claims filed by the Philippines with respect of its territory , The PRC inflicted a continuous barrage of media harangue against the process whilst publicly abstaining from participation.

Commenting on the Chinese attitudes , Vijay Gokhale , India’s erstwhile Foreign Secretary stated , “China could have been expected to welcome the Indo-Pacific approach which gives her both legitimacy and respect in the Indian Ocean. She has, instead, opted to undermine it. After the initial put-down by China’s Foreign Minister in March 2018 who described the idea of the Indo-Pacific as akin to “sea-foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean….. (that) soon will dissipate”, the rhetoric has sharpened. China now alleges that this is an American-led plot to “contain” China’s rise.

Gokhale adds , “Chinese researchers affiliated to the China Naval Research Institute laid out the real game-plan in their article, “The Strategic Scenario in the Indian Ocean and the Expansion of Chinese Naval Power”. Acknowledging that US hegemony and India’s regional influence in the Indian Ocean posed challenges to the Chinese plan, the authors laid out the inherent deficiencies that China needed to overcome, namely that (a) it is not a littoral state; (b) its passage through key maritime straits could be easily blocked; and (c) the possibility of US-India cooperation against China. They suggested that these deficiencies might be overcome by (1) carefully selecting sites to build ports — Djibouti, Gwadar, Hambantota, Sittwe and Seychelles were specifically named; (2) by conducting activities in a low-key manner to “reduce the military colour as much as possible”; and (3) by not unnerving India and America by cooperating at first, then slowly penetrating into the Indian Ocean, beginning with detailed maritime surveys, ocean mapping, disaster relief , port construction and so on. The Chinese have moved precisely along those sinister lines.

On the face of it the Chinese activities in South China sea and on our borders did not seem to overtly prepare us in the past for the nefarious syndrome devised by the Chinese regime as we perhaps looked at goodwill as the ultimate tool in diplomacy. But pragmatically we never lost track of the big crucial and strategic picture for India’s vital interests and peace in the region.

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The author is a strategic affairs commentator.