India is set to sign a military agreement with the United States for the sharing of sensitive satellite data as the two sides began a top-level security dialogue aimed at countering China’s growing power in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper flew into New Delhi on Monday for talks with Indian leaders at a time when India is locked in its most serious military standoff with China in decades at the disputed Himalayan border.
Washington, for its part, has also ramped the diplomatic pressure on China, as ties worsen over a range of issues from Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus to its imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong and ambitions in the South China Sea.
‘New opportunity for two great democracies’
The US and India must work together to confront the threat posed by China to security and freedom, Pompeo said on Tuesday as he prepared for talks with Indian leaders.
“Today is a new opportunity for two great democracies like ours to grow closer,” Pompeo said before the talks with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh,
“There is much more work to do for sure. We have a lot to discuss today: Our cooperation on the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.”Ahead of the formal two-plus-two talks on Tuesday involving top diplomats and military officials, Esper met his Indian counterpart Singh to discuss the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on Geospatial Cooperation that is ready for signing, the Indian defence ministry said.
“The two ministers expressed satisfaction that agreement of BECA will be signed during the visit,” the ministry said in a statement.
The accord would provide India with access to a range of topographical, nautical and aeronautical data that is considered vital for the firing of missiles and armed drones.
It would also allow the US to provide advanced navigational aids and avionics on US-supplied aircraft to India, an Indian defence source said.
Esper has been pressing the case for India to buy US F-18 jets and move away from its reliance on Russian weaponry.
US companies have sold India more than $21bn of weapons since 2007 and Washington has been urging the Indian government to sign agreements allowing for sharing of sensitive information and encrypted communications for better use of the high-end military equipment.
Esper also welcomed Australia’s participation in next month’s naval exercises involving India, US and Japan off the Bay of Bengal.
“Our focus now must be on institutionalising and regularising our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future,” Esper said.
China has previously opposed such multilateral war games, seeing them as aimed against it. India had also long resisted expanding them for fear this would rile Beijing up.
But the border tension with China this summer, which erupted in a clash killing 20 Indian soldiers, has hardened the public mood against Beijing and is driving closer ties with the US, analysts say.
“Our talks today were fruitful, aimed at further deepening defence cooperation in a wide range of areas,” Singh said in a tweet.
Pompeo on Monday separately met Jaishankar, who tweeted that relations between the emerging allies have “grown substantially in every domain”.
In a statement, the US State Department lauded “the strong partnership between the United States and India”, declaring it to be “critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world”.
After India, Pompeo will travel to Sri Lanka and Maldives, two Indian Ocean countries where China has financed and built various infrastructure, which has alarmed India and the US.
US President Donald Trump has made being tough on China a key part of his campaign to secure a second term in next week’s presidential election.