Mark Rosen and Douglas Jackson both contributed to this article.
Top diplomats from India and China held a two-day strategic dialogue in Beijing last week to discuss a range of contentious issues and set the stage for greater cooperation. The larger context of these talks is — to borrow a phrase from Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods” — the “triangular dance” of bilateral relations between India, China and the United States. In August, for example, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times warned New Delhi not to sign a long-negotiated defense logistics agreement with Washington. The logistics agreement went ahead despite China’s concerns.
Now the United States is seeking to complete two other defense agreements with India. Chinese and Indian opponents of these agreements argue that they would disrupt the delicate balance of this dance by tying India too closely to the United States. These concerns are unfounded. On the contrary, rather than create a binding commitment, the agreements would send a signal that India is a formidable power in Asia, with growing capabilities, advancing technology and strong partnerships. And strength is vital to India’s independent foreign policy.
The growth in US-India relations over the last 20 years has led to what both countries consider a strategic partnership, evidenced by significantly greater bilateral trade and investment, the US designation of India as a “Major Defense Partner” in 2016, and the emergence of the US as a top defense supplier to India. No country holds more annual military exercises with India than the US.
However, both the US and Indian armed forces are prevented from reaping the full security benefits of this cooperation because of US legal restrictions on the sharing of mapping data and systems for secure communications. Two routine defense agreements could unlock access to these benefits, but the agreements have been held up in part by suspicion and criticism from some Indian policymakers and analysts.
In light of Indian concerns, we have analyzed the legal requirements and international implementation of these agreements as part of a series of new studies by CNA, a non-profit research organization. We find that many of the concerns expressed in India would be alleviated by a clearer understanding of both the text and practical implementation of the agreements. In fact, they would lead to lower costs for India’s military, preserve its operational flexibility and enhance its joint effectiveness. These benefits take on greater importance given that the new maritime strategy of India’s maturing blue-water navy calls for greater cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific, and the US and Indian navies are expected to continue sharing overlapping interests.
The two agreements under discussion are the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence (BECA). They are among a half-dozen agreements that the US routinely concludes with partners to facilitate defense relations. The two countries have already signed two other foundational agreements: one in 2002 that allows for greater intelligence sharing and the August 2016 agreement that enables logistics exchanges — following especially lengthy negotiations. COMCASA and BECA provide a legal framework for the transfer of communications security systems and mapping data and would allow India to make better use of the defense platforms that it has purchased from the US.
More important to critics is what the agreements would not do. We find that neither the text nor the broad experience of other signatories suggests that they would entrap India into further purchases of US systems or lead to basing agreements or a mutual-defense treaty. The agreements merely provide a legal framework for closer cooperation with the US at India’s discretion and do not obligate India to purchase US systems. Put in their proper perspective, the agreements are modest contributions to the defense relationship that would yield tactical, operational and perhaps even strategic benefits.
The most fundamental objection to these agreements is that they would undermine India’s policy of strategic autonomy, an outgrowth of its historical nonalignment with world powers. Critics fear that the agreements would signal a tilt by India toward the US or lead to military entanglements such as basing agreements or the perception of a mutual defense treaty. However, an analysis of the countries with which the US has signed such agreements demonstrates that they do not endanger autonomy. The US has BECA or similar mapping data-sharing agreements with 57 countries. Some are deeply entrenched allies, but many are nonaligned partners such as Indonesia and South Africa, and concerns regarding sovereignty generally have not been raised.
The text of the agreements bears no resemblance to the basing agreements that have occasionally led to disagreements between the US and some of its allies. India and the US do not have a mutual bilateral defense treaty, and given the current political climate in Washington, there is no indication that the US would choose to sign another legally binding agreement to guarantee the security of another country — much less a large country with a capable military. The US is a strong strategic partner of India, but not an ally, and from an international law perspective, India fully maintains its freedom of action after signing these agreements.
In fact, the wording of the agreements does not commit either side to do anything concrete; they merely establish an umbrella under which the parties can transfer material or information if the situation presents itself. Putting these frameworks in place now better prepares both countries to respond to emergencies. For example, in the recent case in which India asked for US assistance in locating a missing aircraft, the direct interoperability that would have been afforded by an agreement could have resulted in a much more efficient and effective search-and-rescue effort. The conclusion of the COMCASA and BECA agreements might also facilitate greater cooperation in antisubmarine warfare, a capability of great interest to India given the continuing presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, but one that requires secure communications and data sharing.
Critics also argue that workarounds and one-off agreements can take the place of COMCASA and BECA. But these are very limited alternatives that fail to give US military commanders dependable assurance that they can legally share equipment and information with a foreign military. Absent such agreements, a commander could run afoul of federal statutes and longstanding US non-proliferation policies by transferring telecommunications, logistics support or geospatial information.
The agreements enhance the military capabilities of both countries by facilitating more complex bilateral exercises and operations, and by improving interoperability. Even when acting independently, India will benefit from greater functionality of the systems it has purchased from the US. In general, these agreements do not cost India any money; the US does not usually recoup the costs of providing such things as mapping information. They maximize the Indian armed forces’ operational flexibility with minimum effort.
In the “triangular dance,” India is currently navigating a range of contentious issues with China, from India’s desired membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and China’s relations with rival Pakistan to the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean and in South Asian ports. Some have argued that in this environment, India should not risk agreements that might negatively impact relations with China. Our examination of the agreements suggests the opposite. By giving India the option to do more with the US without actually obligating it to do so, these agreements would strengthen India’s hand in the Indo-Pacific without sacrificing its strategic autonomy.
Douglas Jackson is a political-military affairs analyst at CNA Strategic Studies. This op-ed is based on research conducted as part of a recently-released series of papers on the future of US-India naval relations, the role of defense foundational agreements in US-India defense relations, and an analysis of the Indian Navy’s new maritime strategy, capabilities and diplomacy.