India’s two major security decisions taken in October 2020 marked a major shift in its policy to counter China which were meant to strengthen and extend capacities of its armed forces against Beijing’s expansionist moves
India’s two major security decisions taken in October 2020 marked a major shift in its policy to counter China which were meant to strengthen and extend capacities of its armed forces against Beijing’s expansionist moves.
On October 20, India re-invited the Australian Navy to join maritime exercise Malabar 2020, thereby giving practical shape to the Quad (Quadrilateral Defence Cooperation) security grouping. 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). “As far as Quad is concerned, we feel this is a good arrangement which will ensure that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and all other oceans around, there is complete FoN without fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans,”
Partnership with the US
Approval of the Defence Ministry proposed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), between India and the US, which was cleared by the Indian cabinet on October 21, is considered a major move by India to further step up its strategic partnership with the US. India and the US signed the BECA on October 27.
The stage was set by the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun on October 13 and his discussions with External Affairs and Defence Ministers, S. Jaishankar, and Rajnath Singh. Thereafter, the two Indian ministers had discussions with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper during the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Delhi. The signing of BECA on Oct 27 marks a significant milestone between the two countries.
This happened after much hesitation because after six months of a series of unprecedented events raising the level and quantum of deployment of Indian Army and Air Force to match that of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and PLA Air Force, 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, it has decided to join a strong strategic partnership with the US, the world's most powerful nation.
What is BECA?
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 the 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 have 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, 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, India's 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 India's 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 the security, military, and intelligence branches of the two countries. The cooperation includes the 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 dialogue in Delhi, Pompeo and Jaishankar discussed a wide range of issues ranging from addressing the shared challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, collaborating on vaccine development, responding to regional security issues and economic prosperity, according to the US State Department.
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 the killing of Indian Army’s 20 soldiers at Galwan Valley 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.
On the 20 Indian soldiers that were killed in a violent clash with PLA on June 15, Pompeo tweeted; “We extend our deepest condolences to the people of India for the lives lost as a result of the recent confrontation with China. We will remember the soldiers’ families, loved ones, and communities as they grieve.” Hitting out at China, he had said: “The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.”
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 the interoperability of armed forces and the exchange of sensitive information of up to even classified nature. The US reportedly has one of the largest defence satellite networks which include 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 US 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 an agreement like BECA will the US impose sanctions on it? It does not appear likely.
Since the 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, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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 the PLA violated on a daily basis, often claiming that the Indian Army had encroached on what they perceived as Chinese territory. An exception was the brutal torture killing of four Assam Rifles riflemen at Tulung La on October 20, 1975. On September 6-7, 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 the Indian Army, including Tibetan special troops to go back, which they did.
The latest developments regarding the Quad and BECA will certainly not be to the liking of the CCP-PLA The Corps Commander-level talks between India and China are to be held soon. They are bound to discuss for India to back off, and which India must not agree to. Not only must the 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 re-open all pending issues with China, right from its occupation of Tibet, to Aksai Chin and all other tracts of Indian territory.
(The author, a strategic analyst and former spokesperson, Defence Ministry and Indian Army, can be contacted at email@example.com. The views expressed are personal)