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Focus on BECA as India gets ready to host 2+2 ministerial dialogue

Focus on BECA as India gets ready to host 2+2 ministerial dialogue

The Indo-US strategic relationship is poised to come a full circle after the pending foundational agreement – BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) is signed next week as India readies to host the third Indo-US 2+2 Ministerial in New Delhi. The Defence and Foreign Ministers of both sides are most likely to sign BECA which enables exchange of geo-spatial information between the two countries, in terms of maps, charts and aeronautical information in all formats like digital, etc. This was the pending basic strategic agreement which puts India in the category of an important non-NATO American ally much like South Korea and Japan.

Strategic analyst Dr Harinder Sekhon says, "The BECA, if it gets signed, would be a natural progression of our defence relations and would enable real interoperability and information sharing in a challenging global environment. India stands to gain more."

Much of the heavy lifting was done in 2018 to bring India at par, when through a federal notification issued on August 3, US decided to move India into Tier 1 of the US Department of Commerce’s Strategic Trade Authorisation (STA-1). Before it, India was in the STA-2 category with countries like Hong Kong, Albania, Singapore, Israel, Malta, Taiwan and South Africa. Countries in the STA-1 are very few NATO allies, South Korea and Japan. STA tier-1 countries are entitled to receive sophisticated military hardware and sensitive high-end US technology bypassing the license regimen.

It is interesting to note that India and the US have come a long way since the days of US sanctions on India post the 1998 Pokharan ‘Shakti’ nuclear tests conducted by the then BJP Government led by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee.

The STA tier-1 status is reserved for those nations which were members of all the four export control regimes – NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group. While India entered the MTCR (on June 27, 2016), the Wassenaar Arrangement (on December 7, 2017), and the Australia Group (on January 19, 2018), its entry into the NSG was blocked by China despite overwhelming support by other members. China wanted to include Pakistan into the NSG. US made exceptions of placing India into its STA tier-1 list despite India falling short of the NSG membership – which is one of the four crucial export control regimes, in what was seen as a snub to China by the US. This opened doors for a license free Indo-US cooperation in defence civil space, and other high-technology sectors.

In what started almost two decades ago during former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s tenure and gained momentum post the 123 Indo-US Civil Nuclear deal during former PM Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure, the special partnership with US began with the signing of the GSOMIA (General Security Of Military Information Agreement) in 2002 and was followed by EUMA (End User Monitoring Agreement) in 2009.

EUMA was met with skepticism among political circles and the military brass owing to its intrusive and restrictive clauses, as it permitted the seller country to come and inspect the defence equipment sold. Former Naval Chief Sureesh Mehta went on record stating, “As a sovereign nation, we can't accept intrusiveness into our system.”

There were concerns raised by the audit watchdog CAG (Comptroller & Auditor General). Former External Affairs Minister S M Krishna told Parliament on July 21, 2009, “We have agreed on the end-use monitoring arrangements. This systematises ad hoc arrangements for individual defense procurements from the USA entered into by previous governments…”

In 2012, the US State Department launched DTTI (Defence Technology and Trade Initiative) championed by the then Deputy Secretary of State Ashton Carter, with a focus on joint production and co-development of military equipment aimed at ironing out discrepancies in joint initiatives.

In 2016, the Modi Government signed LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) facilitating both the militaries to access each other’s facilities for repairs and supplies. However LEMOA disallowed usage of military bases on either side without clearance. LEMOA aids access to military facilities by both sides for the purpose of replenishment and refuelling primarily during joint training exercises, port calls, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. LEMOA’s biggest beneficiary has been the Indian Navy, as it exercises and interacts the most with international Navies.

In 2018 at the first Indo-US 2+2 a customised CISMOA (Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement) was signed with its new name COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), which was tailored specifically for India. US reserves COMCASA for its close allies and partners for better military interoperability.

COMCASA permits the Indian armed forces to function on high-end secured and encrypted communication equipment installed on American platforms like P-8I, C-130 J, C-17 aircraft, Apache and Chinook helicopters. This agreement facilitates interoperability with other militaries operating US military equipment.

At the 2019 Indo-US 2+2, both countries signed the all important ISA (Industrial Security Annex). The ISA provides a framework for exchange and protection of classified military information between the Indian and American defence industries. Under GSOMIA, the information that was exchanged only between the Governments could now be shared with private parties under ISA.

The famous Articles 4 and 5 are the cornerstone of NATO which state ‘attack on one is an attack on all'. The US has the all-important SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with NATO members which India, Japan and South Korea do not enjoy. But the various bilateral agreements that support joint exercises, intel sharing, logistic support, bracket put these non-NATO allies of the US at par.

India owing to its national interest and historical non-aligned foreign policy may not be a NATO member but it may be noted that a lot of NATO members do not enjoy STA-1 status which India does. The foundational agreements are mechanisms that permit cooperation, and not obligate it, enabling India to maintain its independent foreign policy of not forming alliances.

Allaying fears of New Delhi being pushed closer to Washington, Dr Sekhon adds, "Fears of a tight US embrace are misfounded as we are a vibrant democracy. In foreign policy too, we have so far maintained a balance between our two major defence partners, as was seen in the signing of the S 400 agreement with Russia despite the threat of US sanctions.”.