Two decisions of India announced in October 2020 marked its major shift in policy of not only not annoying China, but instead strengthening and extending capacities of its armed forces against China’s perpetually expansionist moves.
On October 20, 2020, India re-invited the Australian Navy after 2007, to join up for maritime exercise Malabar 2020, thereby completing the Quad (quadrilateral defence cooperation). Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat declared that India wanted the Quad to ensure Freedom of Navigation (FoN) and Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), “It (the Quad) is a good arrangement which will ensure that in the IOR and all other oceans around, there is complete FoN without fear of any other nation trying to singularly dominate the oceans,”
Approval of the Defence Ministry proposed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), between India and the US by the Indian cabinet on October 27, 2020 is considered a major move by India to further step-up its strategic partnership with the US.
The stage was set by the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun on October 13, 2020 and his discussions with External Affairs and Defence Ministers, S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh. Thereafter, their discussions in turn with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper during the 2+2 meet in Delhi and signing of the BECA mark India crossing yet another Rubicon with the US. This happened after much hesitation, because after six months of a series of unprecedented events in East Ladakh, raising the level and quantum of deployment of Indian Army and Air Force to match that of Chinese PLA and PLAF, the fact remains that China has more fighting men and machines than India. While in fighting spirit Indian armed forces are decidedly better than their Chinese counterparts, but numbers do matter. And with China continuing with its military expansionism, it is high time to convey to it that although India is quite capable of taking on China by itself, it has decided to join a strong strategic partnership. China always wanted to deal with India going it alone. It never wanted India to join up with the US but now that it has China will have to stew in its own juice, so to speak.
BECA, for geo-spatial cooperation is essentially a communication agreement proposed between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency of the US Department of Defence and India’s Defence Ministry, which will allow India and the US to share military information including advanced satellite and topographic data such as maps, nautical and aeronautical charts and geodetic, geophysical, geomagnetic and gravity data. While most of the information shared will be unclassified, the pact includes a provision of sharing classified information with safeguards to prevent it from being shared with any third party.
During the ongoing Ladakh standoff, since early May 2020 Indian Defence Ministry felt the lack of requisite satellite data on Chinese military exercises in Tibet as PLA troops directly moved in for the Ladakh standoff that caught India unaware.
BECA will allow US armed forces to provide advanced navigational aids and avionics on US-supplied aircraft to India. Sharing geospatial intelligence with the US through BECA will boost Indian military’s accuracy of automated hardware systems and weapons like cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones. Also, it is a key step for India when it comes to acquiring armed drones such as MQ-9B from the US.
To counter growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The two countries have also been stepping up their engagement with Australia and Japan, the other two members of the ‘Quad’.
India and the US having already signed three key foundational agreements — General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, covering areas of security and military information, compatibility, logistics exchange and communications stood India in very good stead in reacting to China’s post-pandemic military misadventure in East Ladakh.
Since India’s most serious and longest stand-off since early May 2020, India and the US intensified under-the-radar intelligence and military cooperation to an unprecedented level.
After Pompeo called up Jaishankar in the third week of June, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in touch with the US NSA, Robert C O’Brien, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark A Milley was in touch with Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat. Also, Esper called up Rajnath Singh in the second week of July.
These exchanges no doubt enhanced information-sharing between security, military and intelligence branches of the two countries. The cooperation includes sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts, and data sharing of Chinese troops and weapons deployment along the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The capability of India’s armed forces got enhanced with some American equipment. The armed forces used at least five American platforms at the LAC— C-17 Globemaster III for military transport, Boeing’s Chinook CH-47 as heavy-lift helicopters, Boeing’s Apache as tank-killers, P-8I Poseidon for overland reconnaissance, and Lockheed Martin’s C-130J for airlifting troops.
During the 2+2 meet in Delhi Pompeo and Jaishankar discussed a wide range of issues ranging from addressing the shared challenges of the Wuhan virus, collaborating on vaccine development, responding to regional security issues and economic prosperity, according to the US State.
While the visit of Pompeo and Esper to India’s recently built National War Memorial (NWM) for wreath-laying made for good optics, what was more significant was Pompeo’s specific references to his thinking about Indian Army’s 20 soldiers killed at Galwan while paying tribute at the NWM and his earlier criticism of China and Pakistan. In contrast and not surprisingly, neither Singh nor Jaishankar mentioned China by name at the joint news conference.
BECA is expected to elevate the India -US strategic/defence partnership to an unprecedented mega level. It is one of the agreements that the US usually signs with its closest partners as it allows interoperability of armed forces and exchange of sensitive information of up to even classified nature. The US reportedly has one of the largest defence satellite networks which includes spy satellites, GPS satellites, and other specific intelligence satellites like communication intelligence (COMINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites. These satellites continuously provide the US with immense amounts of geospatial data which can give minute-by-minute updates on Pakistani or Chinese military movements.
In October 2018, India inked an agreement worth US$5.43 billion with Russia to procure four S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile defence system, the most powerful missile defence system in the world ignoring the CAATSA act. The U.S. threatened India with sanctions over India’s decision to buy the S-400 missile defense system from Russia. That was then. Now, with India having signed as high an agreement as BECA on October 27, 2020, will US impose sanctions on it ? It does not appear likely.
Since Indian Army’s responses at Galwan on June 15-16 and at Kailash Ridge on the South bank of Pangong Tso on August 29-30, 2020, the Chinese Communist Party and PLA combo has been livid and frustrated. After 53 years since the 1967 Sikkim skirmishes, it was at China’s behest that firearms were not used by both armies in managing the LAC-which PLA violated on a daily basis/often claiming that Indian Army had encroached on what they perceived as Chinese territory, were to be resolved by discussion/dialogue only. A single exception was the brutal torture killing of four Assam Rifles riflemen at Tulung La on October 20, 1975 . On September 6-7, 2020, PLA in frustration following Indian Army’s occupation of Kailash Ridge, approached one of the positions and fired some rounds in the air. They were convinced by Indian Army, including Tibetan special troops to go back, which they did.
The latest developments of India completing/joining the Quad and BECA, have only made the CPC-PLA combo madder than ever before. Any day in early November now-2020-the 8th Corps Commander level talks are to be held. They are bound to bid yet again for a backing off, which India must not agree to. Not only must Indian Army not vacate the commanding positions on Kailash Ridge, but instead, should further occupy whichever other heights that it can right up to Arunachal Pradesh. While keeping a sharp eye on the movement of Chinese forces, India should open all issues with China, right from its occupation of Tibet, to Aksai Chin and all other tracts of Indian territory.
The writer is editor WordSword Features. He is also a strategic analyst and former spokesperson, Defence Ministry and Indian Army, and can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.