China’s aggression, its growing influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Pakistan-sponsored terror could be the critical areas that shape the future of India-United States ties and enhanced security cooperation, according to a study by a US think tank.
As the new Joe Biden administration begins its journey, the study by the US think tank Brookings Institution looked at the India-US ties in wake of security concerns with both China and Pakistan.
The paper authored by Joshua T White gives an overview of the salient features of the cooperation in years to come. “Much of the engagement is presumed to focus on shared counterterrorism interests, particularly the operations of transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed; and information exchanges regarding Chinese threats,” the study says talking about intelligence sharing and cooperation between India and the US.
“The alignment of US and Indian interests on these two principal subjects, together with a pattern of reciprocal exchange, has served to build trust in recent years.”
Did India-China tension prompt quick US cooperation?
In a big step towards intelligence-sharing, India and the US have signed a crucial pact that allows India access to US satellite data giving precise locations of military targets as the two countries will sign an agreement for sharing of geospatial information on Tuesday.
The agreement on sharing geospatial information was inked during the 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi in October last year and came as a boost to India-US military cooperation. It is significant that the pact was signed amid the India-China tussle in Ladakh that has been continuing for nearly nine months now.
With the sharing of data related to locations on the ground or on waters, nautical and aeronautical maps and charts and specific coordinates will improve accuracy while hitting military targets.
My warmest congratulations to @JoeBiden on his assumption of office as President of the United States of America. I look forward to working with him to strengthen India-US strategic partnership.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) January 20, 2021
The signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) had been deliberated for long but there was no breakthrough as India had reservations about letting out classified information. It took a while but all the concerns have been addressed.
This is the last of the four foundational agreements decided between the two countries for better military cooperation.
In 2016, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 and the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) was signed in 2019. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was signed in 2002 and was a precursor to an extension GSOMIA.
“With respect to China, public reporting suggests that the United States has been proactive in offering intelligence support to India to help it manage recent border crises. The signing of the BECA, a broad framework agreement, enables both parties to establish more specific arrangements related to sharing classified and controlled unclassified information. The exchange of sensitive maritime information on subjects such as Chinese submarine transit of the Indian Ocean, and geospatial data pertaining to the disposition of Chinese forces along the Sino-Indian border, are two natural areas on which to pursue such arrangements,” the Brookings study notes.
Another important step taken amid the India-China standoff was the use of LEMOA as India made an urgent purchase of additional high-altitude winter clothing from the US keeping in mind the needs of the enhanced troop deployment in Ladakh during the peak winter.
The clothing and gear bought earlier are being used by Indian troops deployed at the icy heights of Ladakh now as temperatures have dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius.
LEMOA facilitates logistical support, supplies and services between the armed forces of the two countries. These include clothing, food, lubricants, spare parts, medical services among other essentials.
Another key development in the relations in view of China’s forays in the waters to assert its influence was the coming together of QUAD countries — India, US, Japan and Australia — for combined war games in the seas. Australia joined in the Malabar Exercise in November last year when the latest edition took place in India in two phases.
“Aided in part by a converging concern about growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and along the contested Sino-Indian continental frontier, the United States and India expanded military exercises, restarted and elevated a quadrilateral dialogue with Australia and Japan, and deepened consultations regarding China,” the Brookings study says.
The study makes a reference to the 2017 Doklam standoff and the current border crisis in Ladakh, stating that the developments “have precipitated a major rupture in trust and a fundamental shift in India’s orientation toward China.”
The study also made an observation on the Indian government’s stand and response to the tensions. “But the Modi government’s muted rhetoric tells a more ambiguous story, and should suggest to US observers that India’s posture toward China will likely continue to be marked by caution, concession, and contradiction. A more subtle Chinese approach, for example, in which Beijing pulled back from provocative border tactics and “wolf warrior” propaganda while proffering modest economic inducements, might conceivably prompt a new bout of Indian reticence about overt defence cooperation with the United States,” the Brookings study says.
Though there have been a string of steps to enhance cooperation after the China standoff the future could be vary depending on the situation. “Unless the Sino-Indian border crisis escalates in the spring as snow melts in high altitude border areas, India may not be a “day one” item for the new administration,” the study states.
How far will US go to take on Pak-based terror?
The study does mention Pakistan-based terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as areas of shared interests to both countries.
The study describes the India-Pakistan border as the world’s most likely site of a nuclear conflict apart from the Korean Peninsula.
The study says US scholars note that attacks by Pakistan-based militant groups on India continue unabated. In a possible reference to India carrying out cross border strikes, including using airpower, to hit terror camps in Pakistan, the study says, “India’s new pattern of conventional responses appears to be increasing the risk of inadvertent escalation – providing political catharsis without any discernible deterrent to Pakistani provocation.”
It highlights the possibility of Afghan fighters being used by Pakistan-based terror groups and making their way Kashmir-something that Indian intelligence reports have frequently touched upon.
“Indian leaders remember well that the end of the Afghan jihad in the late 1980s marked the beginning of a new wave of Pakistan-sponsored militant activities in Kashmir in the early 1990s, and are rightly anxious about the prospect of a new generation of Afghanistan-based militants turning their attention to India,” the study adds.
Looking beyond defence cooperation
Asserting that India-US relations need to look beyond security ties, the study describes the defence and security relationship with India a modest but important piece of that wider agenda that requires steady investment and recalibration rather than major redesign.
“The administration would, as a first order concern, have to rebuild a broader bilateral relationship with India that is not disproportionately dependent on defence and security ties.”
Areas like health security, tackling global challenges from climate change also need attention.
“This kind of wider agenda has a dual value,” it says, adding that it would reflect President Joe Biden’s plainly stated priorities: “Reaffirming a values-based foreign policy, reassuring close partners, restoring US competitiveness, and reclaiming global leadership. And it recognises that the American people stand to gain from a multifaceted relationship with India that includes robust economic and people-to-people ties.”
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