India, US to sign key defence pact at 2+2 next week; Kashmir could figure
India and the United States are likely to sign a key defence agreement at the second edition of the upcoming 2+2 ministerial, which has become a “principal mechanism”, as a senior US diplomat put it Wednesday, for advancing growing strategic convergence between the two countries.
The Industrial Security Annex (ISA), the defence pact the two countries will sign, according to people familiar with the preparatory discussions, will allow US companies to share sensitive, proprietary defence technology with Indian private companies and not just with Indian state-owned partners, marking another major milestone in the growing partnership between the two countries.
The agreement “will allow for new avenues of collaboration between our private sectors on defence research and co-development”, said Alice Wells, the top US state department diplomat for South Asia and Central Asia. She was speaking at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a leading US think tank, to commemorate President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to India in 1959, the first by a sitting US president.
The annex will allow, for instance, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the leading US manufacturers of warplanes, to seek local partners among Indian private players to mount a bid for the 114 fighter jets that the Indian Air Force is seeking to order to replace its aging fleet of Russian MiG 21s.
Wells spoke of the agreement only in general terms and gave no indication if it was to be signed in Washington DC on December 18 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar meet their US counterparts Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo for day-long meetings including a working lunch hosted by the state department at its Foggy Bottom headquarters.
Wells set her remarks also against the backdrop of the 2+2 ministerial meeting, which she said had become the “principal mechanism under the Trump administration for translating strategic convergence into tangible outcomes”.
The talks will cover cover an entire range of issues from counter-terrorism to regional connectivity (a phrase used to describe the China challenge) to Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir. The United States would raise it, as it appeared from Wells’s remarks Wednesday.
The United States expected Indian to “release political detainees and restore normalcy”, she said, adding, “Kashmiris are entitled to their full rights under the Indian constitution which respects the religious freedom of all Indians.”
She acknowledged, however, the security challenges India faced there including cross-border terrorism, which has been New Delhi’s key defence of the controversial restrictions.
Wells’ remarks were also intended to address continuing disquiet on Capitol Hill over the Kashmir situation. She was to brief lawmakers at a closed-door meeting later in the day. Lawmakers remained concerned, a congressional aide who attended the briefing said, about the “situation in India”.
The first edition of the 2+2 ministerial, which took place in Delhi, was marked by the signing of the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the second of the three enabling (also called foundational) agreements the United States had been pushing India to sign for years to expand interoperability between their militaries.
The first of these pacts, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows Indian and US militaries to use each other’s facilities (to refuel, for instance) was signed in 2016 by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter. There is just one more left — Basic Exchange and Cooperation for geo-spatial cooperation.
India-US defence cooperation has developed rapidly in recent years with trade, a major component of it, going up from Indian buying zero US equipment in 2008 to around $15 billion in 2018. The two countries also conduct joint military exercises with increased frequency. They recently concluded their first tri-services exercises, called Tiger Triumph, and have participated in joint-drills with other countries in the region such as the one with Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea in May.