As the United States and India conclude the third 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue this week, the results emerging from these meetings are notable, not just because of their substance, but because of their timing. The two countries completed a defense agreement that has been well over a decade in the making and affirmed a series of other promising military collaborations. The fact that such progress comes in the last months of a U.S. presidential term suggests that for New Delhi, these advances are not primarily intended to curry favor with the White House — as has been past practice — but spring from a genuine desire to enhance military cooperation with the United States. Concerns about China appear to have driven India to finally get serious about its defense partnership with the United States.
The U.S.-India defense relationship continues to be the central pillar of the 2+2 dialogues, as was intended from the start of these summits. The format of joining both countries’ top diplomats with their defense chiefs — thus “2+2” — emerged out of a recognition that decisions to meaningfully expand security ties required the sign-off of both departments. A summit was the forcing function designed to compel progress. This time, the most significant outcome was the completion of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which, along with the previously signed Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, and the Industrial Security Annex to the General Security of Military Information Agreement, completes the “defense foundational agreements” between the two countries.
Such an agreement was a long time in coming. It took some 15 years to get to this point if one starts counting when the second U.S.-India Defense Framework Agreement was signed in 2005, or possibly 25 years if one begins with first Defense Framework Agreement in 1995. As one Pentagon staffer recently commented, “We’ve had the SecDef [Secretary of Defense] ask the Indians to complete these agreements for so long that we’re going to be a loss when we need to draft the SecDef briefing book for his next India summit.”
The BECA, like the other foundational agreements, allows the U.S. military to partner with the Indian military in practical ways. This is, perhaps, why Indian officials objected to it for so long. BECA establishes procedures for India to obtain real-time access to U.S. information that will enhance the accuracy of automated systems and weapons, as well as improve navigation and reconnaissance. This includes geospatial intelligence such as geomagnetic data, gravity data, and aeronautical and nautical charts. But information flows both ways. For years, the Indian establishment feared that the pact would compromise the security of information about Indian military assets — and even allow the U.S. to share such information with Pakistan. Many Indians also believed that the agreement would compromise Indian military autonomy and independence. This was yet another legacy of India’s Cold War “non-aligned” mentality.
When the Modi government came to power, it took a new look at these unsigned agreements. While some Indian military officials and diplomats who had worked closely with the Pentagon already appreciated the value of these agreements, the general senior leadership view previously appeared to be that signing these agreements was doing the U.S. a favor. Therefore, India would wait a year or so between signing each agreement in order to use them to extract concessions from the U.S. on issues that were of greater priority to New Delhi.
The timing of the completion of BECA and the other commitments made at the third 2+2 indicates that Delhi’s thinking may have changed. If Delhi had seen BECA as a means ingratiating itself with the U.S. government — rather than an agreement in India’s own interests — the Modi government would have waited until next year, when a new administration might be in place. The fact that India signed this agreement now suggests there is a genuine desire to enhance military cooperation with the United States.
Outside observers and commentators understandably focus on geopolitical forces like China that are shaping the relationship between the United States and India, but it takes government officials to generate and implement tangible proposals for enhanced cooperation. U.S.-India bilateral meetings are evolving from events that produced mostly political statements to summits with outcomes that testify to concrete actions. This trend demonstrates that real cooperative mechanisms are being built, slowly but steadily, between the two countries.
The resulting change in the U.S.-India security relationship is broad. For many years, the U.S. has proposed Special Operations cooperation, a U.S.-India Defense Cyber Dialogue, the introduction of an Indian liaison officer at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and a follow-on summit on the Industrial Security Annex, which allows classified information sharing for private defense-industrial cooperation. All of these proposals were resisted by Indian governments — until now. It has taken a long time, but the threat of the Chinese military may have finally generated a critical mass of supporters in Delhi for a meaningful partnership with the U.S. military at the operational level.