On the face of it, the Basic Exchange and Coooperation Agreement (BECA) signed on Tuesday between the United States and India is a continuation of the close ties that the two countries have struck for the last two decades.
But, coming at a time when tensions are high on the Ladakh border with China in a standoff that has lasted nearly six months, the agreement acquires added significance.
For the US, which has drawn India into a larger alliance called the Quad, the agreement marks affirmation of its ties with New Delhi. Washington has its own issues with China on the trade front and on the technological dominance of Beijing that threatens its own leadership role across the world.
That is one reason why despite the fact that the current administration under President Donald Trump is facing elections that will determine its fate the US has gone ahead and signed the defence cooperation deal with India. What this means is that irrespective of who comes to power in Washington after the elections, there will be no substantive change in US ties with India or for that matter, regarding any deal it has so far signed with New Delhi.
The Narendra Modi government, on the other hand, has hopefully thought through its decision to dive deep into strategic ties with the US as, among other things, it is bound to irritate Beijing.
Already, in response to the BECA agreement that the US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and his colleague Secretary of Defence Mark Esper signed with Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, China has officially expressed its reservations about the agreement stating that the US is attempting to sow discord between neighbours.
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According to reports, BECA gives India access to Washington’s high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps and in exchange will have to share with the US sensitive information from its own databank .
It may be recalled that BECA was under consideration even under the earlier Congress-led UPA government. But it did not sign the deal as there were reportedly apprehensions in the Indian security establishment over the implications of sharing with the US sensitive military data, as part of the agreement.
Though reports say that the India’s defence personnel have satisfied themselves on this score it is not clear how exactly key information will be safeguarded. Some analysts, like Narayan Lakshman of The Hindu, speculate that data will be differentiated into two categories – “sensitive” and “classified” – and the ones that are sensitive may be passed on to the US while that marked classified may be held back.
The agreement today also comes as a prelude to a major naval exercise planned In early November on India’s Malabar coast and in attendance will be the Quad countries. Several purposes are served by such exercises. For one, it could be perceived as a flexing of India’s military muscle. Not that China will shrink back from its position in Ladakh but the message that India will hope to send is that it is among powerful friends. How useful these exercises are in the event of an actual conflict is open to speculation.
But it is not all about China. BECA is expected to boost India’s strike capability across the border with Pakistan. If a situation similar to the Balakot strike were to arise the agreement with the US is expected to give much more teeth to New Delhi’s capabilities.
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Signficantly, for the US, Pakistan continues to be a long-standing ally. Would the US allow India to
use its technology against another friend? If that is not the case, what would be the utility value of a military asset that Indian cannot use when in need. These are the nitty-gritty of BECA that is being probably worked out or has been discussed, at least in principle. Unless of course the entire deal is aimed at China rather than against Pakistan.
Overall, it is clear that India and the US are in a relationship for the long haul. What needs to be assessed is whether the ties are going to change political and military equations in the subcontinent for the foreseeable future. Right now, under the Trump administration which also has a reputation for unpredictability its ties with China have plummeted and in that sense, somewhat similar to India’s situation too vis a vis Beijing.
There was a time in the not so distant past when Trump praised the Chinese leadership and relations seemed to be on the level. If in the future, if the US-China relations take a turn for the better, there might even be a reset In Washington’s perception of the region including Quad. Where would that leave India?
Most reports in India have been celebratory and triumphant over the signing of BECA between India and the US. Without attempting to dampen the optimism that BECA has generated for India, it would be more prudent, considering the various imponderables, for India to adopt a cautious approach in its own long-term strategic interests.