The most striking element of the latest Indo-United States (US) 2+2 talks is that two senior US ministers flew personally to India during a pandemic and a week before their national elections. This is a testament to the strategic importance Washington attaches to New Delhi. The tangible outcome from these talks was the formal signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence (BECA). This is the last of four foundational defence agreements between the two countries that allow a much higher level of military cooperation in technology, interoperability, and defence manufacturing.
It is not to New Delhi’s credit that it has taken nearly two decades to sign these agreements, overly worried at false claims these would undermine Indian sovereignty. The US has BECA agreements with 57 countries; so, this is hardly an exclusive arrangement. But it is also true few of these countries have ballistic missiles that can now achieve pinpoint accuracy when heading to their targets by accessing the US’s unparalleled network of military-grade satellites. The Trump administration and the Narendra Modi government have been fast-forwarding the integration of the Indo-Pacific strategies of their two countries. In the past several weeks, there has been an alignment of the Malabar naval exercises with the Quad and India participated in a meeting of the Five Eyes intelligence coalition. The Trump team wanted to go further, but the Indian government has preferred to wait for the next US administration to assume office. There are reasons for this caution, notably the erratic nature of US grand strategy over the past 12 years.
The next step is about taking things beyond guns and gizmos. India needs to leapfrog economically and technologically to become a genuine strategic balancer to China. Washington now talks of internet coalitions and developing supply chains in high-technology products that all exclude China. But this requires the US government to rework its traditional trade negotiations, put pressure on its firms to make that break, and put a strategic touch to its immigration policies. India now talks of an “innovation partnership” that must develop along with all the military-to-military bonhomie taking place. All this will wait until after the US elections, and requires a negotiations format that goes beyond the present 2+2 conversations.