India has signed a military agreement with the United States for the sharing of sensitive satellite data as the two sides held 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.
“I am glad to say the United States and India are taking steps for cooperation against all manners of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said after he and Esper held talks with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday.
“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity CCP is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, the freedom of navigation [which is] the foundation of a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
The two sides signed a key agreement on sharing satellite data for military purposes during the so-called bi-annual “two plus two” meeting.
The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on Geospatial Cooperation 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.
Collaboration on containing the coronavirus pandemic was prominent in the discussions between the two countries.
“The challenges that came from the pandemic that originated in Wuhan also led to robust discussions about the Chinese Communist Party [CCP],” Pompeo told reporters.
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 on Monday.
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.
In a statement on Monday, 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.