India warms up to the US amid 'new cold' in India-China relations

With both India-China and US-China relations grinding to a halt, the strengthening of India-US ties unnerves China the most, says Amrita Jash. Will recent high-signature events — such as the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) between the US and India, and the Malabar exercise involving the Quad countries of India, Japan, Australia and the US — have China walking on eggshells?
This handout photo taken and released by the Indian Navy on 18 November 2020 shows a ship refuelling during the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian sea. (Indian Navy/AFP)
This handout photo taken and released by the Indian Navy on 18 November 2020 shows a ship refuelling during the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian sea. (Indian Navy/AFP)

While India-China ties are experiencing a “new cold”, India-US relations are taking significant strides both intentionally as well as circumstantially — the most recent being the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) on 27 October, at the Third India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in New Delhi. The meeting was held between Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and their American counterparts then US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. This high-level interaction between India and the US marks a landmark achievement on account of it taking place under a complex security environment. With the pandemic refusing to fade away and the need for de-escalation between India and China becoming an issue now more than ever, the signing of BECA under such circumstances leaves little room for ambiguity as to the “agenda” in the minds of New Delhi and Washington.

The crucial factor that is increasingly shaping the New Delhi-Washington dynamic is that of seeking to counterbalance Beijing’s aspirations manifested in the South China Sea, against Taiwan, and along the LAC in the Himalayan border.

In fact, the 2+2 Dialogue set the tone for the recent eighth round of corps commander-level talks between China and India on the military standoff in Eastern Ladakh. The escalation at the frontiers has cast a shadow on the celebratory spirit of the 70 years of India-China ties in 2020 marked as the “Year of India-China Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges”. While disengagement is in place through diplomatic and military channels, the standoff in Eastern Ladakh has seemingly changed the nature of the larger boundary dispute. What John Garver called “The Protracted Contest” now has an added new dimension of “volatility”, as seen in the casualties at the Galwan Valley clash on 15 June. Thus, with no progress made in de-escalation, the tensions in Eastern Ladakh are likely to persist and both sides are gearing up for the long haul. Besides, unlike in the past, the disputed border is increasingly witnessing new signs of unrest in the form of repeated stand-offs: Chumar, Demchok and Doklam, and an increasing rate of Chinese transgressions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). With the LAC not delineated on a map or demarcated on the ground — the clash of perceptions opens greater possibilities of confrontation.

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India's Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint along a highway leading to Ladakh, at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district 17 June 2020. (Danish Ismail/REUTERS)

India and the US drawing closer amid fractured relations with China

With both India-China and US-China relations grinding to a halt, the strengthening of India-US ties unnerves China the most. The crucial factor that is increasingly shaping the New Delhi-Washington dynamic is that of seeking to counterbalance Beijing’s aspirations manifested in the South China Sea, against Taiwan, and along the LAC in the Himalayan border. The changing security environment, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic and compounded by China’s aggressive posture, is making India-US ties more important than ever, and the 2+2 Dialogue more significant than symbolic. Also to note, the dialogue marks the second meeting between Jaishankar and Pompeo in October, after the second Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers’ meeting held in Tokyo on 6 October — both in person amidst the pandemic.

India-US defence trade has significantly expanded from being almost zero in 2008 to that of being worth US$20 billion in 2020.

Strong Indo-US ties do not comply with the Chinese interest. This is all the more so given the recent strategic upturn in Indo-US relations. Firstly, India-US defence ties have been enhanced under four foundational agreements: the 2002 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) for greater technology cooperation in the military sector; the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) for cooperation in four key areas of port calls, joint exercises, training, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; the 2018 Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) for access to advanced defence systems; and finally, the 2020 BECA on the exchange of geo-spatial information which will allow the US to share satellite data with India that aids the targeting of military assets and navigation.

Secondly, India-US defence trade has significantly expanded from being almost zero in 2008 to that of being worth US$20 billion in 2020. Third, there are increased military exercises between India and the US, such as Tiger Triumph in 2019 — the first joint tri-service exercise — and the Malabar exercise in November 2020 between the four Quad partners. In such a context, the signing of BECA significantly adds to the “global strategic partnership” between India and US, highlighting the increasing scope and pace of the diplomatic and more specifically, the military ties between the two countries.

BECA makes a potent tool to maintain a check on China’s behaviour.

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In this handout photograph taken on 27 October 2020 and released by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB), India's Union Minister for Defense, Shri Rajnath Singh (second from right), India's Union Minister for External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (R) with the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (left) and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (second from left) pose for pictures before their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. (AFP)

What makes BECA significant is the fact that it entails geo-spatial intelligence. Specifically, as summarised in the Economic Times, the agreement signed between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency of the US Department of Defence and the Indian Ministry of Defence allows for the exchanging of maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, commercial and other unclassified imagery, geophysical, geomagnetic, and gravity data. Indeed, this will be a cause of worry for China. BECA makes a potent tool to maintain a check on China’s behaviour.

Sino-US relations in the current times have entered a “new era”, whereby the longstanding perception of “engagement and cooperation” has turned into “competition” and is making its way towards “confrontation”, defying the perceived “new type of great power relations” earlier proposed by China. Washington has ramped up pressure on Beijing over a range of issues concerning China’s handling of the coronavirus, the passing of the national security law in Hong Kong, military activism in the China Sea and tensions over Taiwan. The dynamics seen between the US and China has clarified two perspectives: First, the liberal wisdom suggesting economic interdependence helps alleviate political distrust has been disproved. Second, growing distrust has manifested a heightened security dilemma between the two countries, pushing the envelope further.

China’s jibe in Eastern Ladakh is another source of contention with the US. This has further enhanced the significance of India in American eyes as a strong countervailing force in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific region. Thus, the more China pushes the security envelope in the Himalayas, it is only natural that it will only pull India and the US closer politically, diplomatically and above all, strategically. Whether this will make China walk on eggshells is worth watching.

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