Amid the Sino-Indian military standoff along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and rising tensions in the South China Sea, the Quadrilateral grouping of US, Japan, India and Australia are sending their warships for the Malabar Exercise next month.
New Delhi and Washington are also stepping up efforts to conclude the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) ahead of the Indo-US 2+2 ministerial meeting on October 26-27 – defence and foreign ministers of the two countries will be in a huddle at the 2+2.
A key military pact, BECA will allow India to use US geospatial intelligence and enhance accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones. In February, US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for early conclusion of BECA.
On Monday, India announced that Australia will be part of the Malabar Exercise in November, making it the first military exercise between all countries that make the Quadrilateral grouping, better known as Quad.
Since 2017, the year Quad was revived, Malabar had been a trilateral exercise involving the navies of US, India and Japan. It includes simulated war games and combat manoeuvres. Last year, it was held in September off the coast of Japan, and included complex maritime operations in surface, sub-surface and air domains, with focus on anti-submarine warfare, anti-air and anti-surface firings, maritime interdiction operations (MIO) including Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) and tactical scenario-based exercises at sea.
The fast-tracking of work on BECA and the decision of the four Quad countries to participate in the Malabar Exercise are perceived to be a strategic signal to an aggressive China which External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar described last week as a “critical security challenge” at the border. Indian and Chinese troops have been in a military standoff along the Ladakh frontier since early May.
US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark T Esper are expected to come to India for the 2+2 Indo-US ministerial meeting with Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on October 26-27.
Sources said that ever since February, when Trump visited India and the joint statement underlined “early conclusion” of BECA, negotiators from the two sides have been working to finalise the pact.
This is one of the last of the foundational agreements, and largely pertains to geo-spatial intelligence, sharing information on maps and satellite images for defence purposes. The US had submitted a draft pact, and India had sought more details on the extent of information needed to be shared under this arrangement. “It’s come down to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s now,” a source told The Indian Express Monday.
Even if BECA is not signed, the two sides are likely to announce conclusion of the agreement during the visit, the source said.
In September 2018, after the first 2+2 dialogue between the two countries – the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met visiting US counterparts Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis — the two sides had signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which paved the way for transfer of communication security equipment from the US to India to facilitate “interoperability” between their forces — and potentially with other militaries that use US-origin systems for secured data links.
Earlier, in August 2016, India and the US signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which allows the military of each country to replenish from the other’s bases.
These pacts tie in well with the Malabar Exercise, since India has signed versions of LEMOA with all Quad countries.
Confirming the Malabar Exercise, a Ministry of Defence statement Monday said: “As India Seeks to increase cooperation with other countries in the maritime security domain and in the light of increased defence cooperation with Australia, Malabar 2020 will see the participation of the Australian Navy.”
“This year, the exercise has been planned on a ‘non-contact-at sea’ format. The exercise will strengthen the coordination between the Navies of the participating countries,” the statement said.
“The participants of Exercise Malabar 2020 are engaging to enhance safety and security in the maritime domain. They collectively support free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and remain committed to a rules-based international order,” the statement said.
Responding to this announcement, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “Following an invitation from India, Australia will participate in Exercise Malabar 2020.”
“The exercise will bring together four key regional defence partners: India, the United States, Japan and Australia in November 2020,” she said.
Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said the Malabar Exercise marks a milestone opportunity for the Australian Defence Force.
“High-end military exercises like Malabar are key to enhancing Australia’s maritime capabilities, building interoperability with our close partners, and demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” Reynolds said.
“Exercise Malabar also showcases the deep trust between four major Indo-Pacific democracies and their shared will to work together on common security interests.”
Payne too said the announcement was another important step in Australia’s deepening relationship with India. “It will bolster the ability of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to work together to uphold peace and stability across our region,” she said.