Ahead of the US Presidential elections on 3 November, American media is full of reports of possible firing of the CIA and FBI Directors as well as Defense Secretary Mark Esper if Donald Trump is re-elected. Amid these uncertainties, Esper is in India today with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the third Indo-US 2+2 dialogue with their defence and foreign ministry counterparts.
While Esper is meeting Rajnath Singh today, Pompeo will hold bilateral talks with Dr S Jaishankar ahead of the joint meeting in Delhi’s Hyderabad House on Tuesday scheduled for 10 am. Ahead of press statements on Tuesday, the ministers will call on Prime Minister Modi at 1pm.
Political Signalling Of Bipartisan Support To India-US Ties
“Holding the third US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in just over two years demonstrates high-level commitment to our shared diplomatic and security objectives,” said a US State Department read out.
But why hold a formal dialogue with a week to go in the presidential race, and most American polls pointing to a strong lead for Joe Biden?
The timing of the 2+2 suggests that it was important for both sides to try to sign off on certain pending bilateral issues. The very holding of the dialogue is proof that there is bipartisan support in the US for strengthening US-India relations.
For example, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that is going to be up for discussion is something that even an Obama Democratic administration would have wanted to sign with India.
Momentum Needed in Transition Periods
“Transition periods can usually be the time when you lose momentum,” says Dr. Tanvi Madan, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institute, speaking from DC. “It is also important to show solidarity with India at a time when the crisis with China is ongoing. Broadly, the dialogue signifies a more regularised institutionalised nature of US-India relationship,” she adds.
The 2+2 dialogue comes days after a meeting between Foreign Ministers of Quad members (US-India-Japan-Australia) in Tokyo and Delhi’s green signal to Canberra to return to the Malabar exercise along with navies of the other three Quad countries for the first time after 2007.
“Given China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour across the Indo-Pacific from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, it’s more important than ever that we work with likeminded partners such as India. We were pleased to see India’s recent announcement regarding Australia joining the Malabar naval exercise,” said a senior State Department official on condition of anonymity.
US-India All Set To Sign BECA
Against this backdrop, one of the key outcome of talks expected is the inking of the last pending foundational pact BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) which has been under discussion for almost a decade now.
“We’ve made significant progress towards concluding the last foundational defense enabling agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or the BECA. This agreement will allow for expanded geospatial information sharing between our armed forces,” confirmed a senior US Defense official.
Simply put, BECA will enable India and the US to share nautical and aeronautical charts, and geo spatial information supplemented by highly accurate US satellite data.
This will arm both countries with better information for navigation and targeting military assets in each other’s region with safeguards to ensure no sharing of classified data with a third party. It is also aimed at enhancing the accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones.
Importance of India-US Military Agreements
India and the US have already signed two basic agreements LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement inked in 2016) and COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement in 2018) which relate to sharing military logistics and enabling secure communications.
The US has signed these three basic agreements only with close partners to enable interoperability of forces and exchange of sensitive and classified information.
In July 2020, the Indian Navy successfully completed a passing exercise with the US Navy as the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group transited through the Indian Ocean Region.
In 2019, the two countries held their first-ever tri-service exercise, Tiger Triumph. Today, India maintains the largest fleet of C-17 and P-8 aircraft outside of the United States, and as of 2020 the United States has authorized more than $20 billion in defense sales to India.
Unless there is some serious last minute hiccup, BECA is being considered a done deal with discussions also expected on another Maritime Information Sharing agreement.
Focus On China And Indo-Pacific
The elephant in the room as the top ministers from the two countries meet will be China with focus expected on the Indo-Pacific region. “We’ve solidified our strategic alignment and confirmed the need to work together in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific for the benefit of all countries in the region”, added a senior US Defense Department Official.
Notes are also expected to be exchanged on the ongoing LAC standoff between India and China. “We, as a government, are watching the situation in the Himalayas closely, and understandably. And we certainly want to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate. That said, we are certain to providing support, whether through defence sales, exercises which I talked about earlier, as well as information sharing – these are all areas where we cooperate with the Indians,” said a senior US administration Official at a recent background briefing.
India To Raise H1B Visa Issues
Meanwhile, in an election year where the Trump administration has tightened the screws on immigration and H1B visas hitting Indian IT and Tech companies majorly, this issue will be talked about in the meeting room. The number of Indian students studying in the United States has increased five years in a row, more than doubling from 96,000 students in the 2012-13 academic year to more than 200,000 in 2018-19.
The Indian diaspora in the United States is nearly four million strong.
“Broadly ,we intend to focus on four major themes at this year’s 2+2: global cooperation, which includes public health collaboration and our work together in the Indo-Pacific; economic cooperation, which includes our partnership on energy and in space; people-to-people ties; and defense and security ties,” said the senior State Department Official quoted earlier.
“I have no reason to believe that in the event of there being a new administration following the upcoming elections here in the United States that the policy with regard to India would change. I think both parties are largely aligned on their interest in supporting and deepening the partnership,” the official underlined asked about the future of bilateral ties and security arrangements post 3 November.
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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