U.S., India: Forging a Strategic Defense Partnership

3 MINS READMar 20, 2018 | 18:18 GMT
The Big Picture

In our 2018 South Asia Annual Forecast, we said that India would pursue a deeper security partnership with the United States in an effort to counter China's growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. This week, India's national security adviser is traveling to the United States to meet with his U.S. counterpart, which aligns with our forecast. We can expect India and China, the world's two most populous nations, to continue to compete for influence across the region.

India is exploring a deepening defense partnership with the United State as it seeks to balance against an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region. On March 20, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval arrived in the United States to meet with his American counterpart, H.R. McMaster, along with incoming U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and incoming CIA Director Gina Haspel. Doval's visit aims to lay the groundwork for a first-ever dialogue between Indian and U.S. foreign and defense ministers, which was originally scheduled for April 18 but which has since been delayed pending Pompeo's confirmation.

Of particular significance during Doval's visit are two outstanding foundational defense agreements India has yet to sign with the United States. The first is called the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and involves sharing encrypted technology and secure communications between the two countries' militaries. The second is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which would enable Washington to share geospatial intelligence with New Delhi.

India's history of colonization has instilled in its government a desire for maintaining strategic military autonomy and preventing interference from larger powers. Thus, the country's policymakers are wary of any agreements that could be perceived as compromising this ethos. Indeed, New Delhi negotiated for more than a decade before it finally signed a foundational U.S.-India defense pact in August 2016. That document, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, allows for logistics sharing between the Indian and American militaries on a case-by-case basis.

But there are signs that India could fast-track discussions about the new agreements. Reports suggest that New Delhi is satisfied with the way that Washington has so far addressed concerns about Indian military autonomy, though no details have been released on the matter. If India does end up signing and implementing COMCASA and BECA later this year, the Indian and U.S. militaries will be able to greatly increase their interoperability. The signing would also indicate a shift in India's approach to its own strategic autonomy doctrine.

So far, there is only limited information about the progress of the two defense agreements, and there are many details left to address. But the United States and India share a strong desire to counter China's maritime expansion, which they both view as a threat to their energy and trade routes in the Indian and Pacific oceans. And this mutual interest will likely encourage cooperation, despite the risks it may raise. 

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