NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper arrived in India on Monday for the third 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue where the two countries are likely to finalise and sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on geo-spatial cooperation.
The ministerial dialogue will be held on Tuesday prior to which the two US officials will pay their tributes at the National War Memorial.
The talks are expected to focus on regional and global security, defence information sharing, strengthening and working in the Indo-Pacific, and cooperation on public health to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
After the wide-ranging talks between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his American counterpart Mark T Esper, the defence ministry said, "the two ministers expressed satisfaction that agreement of BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) will be signed during the visit."
"Both the Ministers expressed satisfaction at the close engagements between the respective Armed Forces. They discussed potential new areas of cooperation, both at service to service level and at the joint level," it said.
The ministry said the two ministers also called for continuation of existing defence dialogue mechanisms during the pandemic, at all levels, particularly the Military Cooperation Group (MCG).
They also discussed requirements of expanding deployments of liaison officers in each other's facilities.
It said the US Secretary of Defence welcomed Australia's participation in the upcoming Malabar naval exercise.
Singh also highlighted recent reforms in the defence manufacturing sector and invited US companies to make best use of the liberalised policies and the favorable defence industry ecosystem in the country.
The US State Department, in a statement, said that holding the third 2+2 ministerial dialogue in a little more than two years demonstrates high-level commitment to our shared diplomatic and security objectives.
“The US and India have a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the growth in the partnership “reflects a deepening strategic convergence on a range of issues,” the statement added.
Ahead of the Tuesday's dialogue, both Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar held separate talks with their US counterparts.
In a tweet, Esper said the partnership of "our two great nations is vital to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."
On the meeting between Jaishankar and Pompeo, official sources said they discussed "shared concerns and interests" including stability and security in Asia as well as the situation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Both sides deliberated on the Afghan peace process, sources said, adding Jaishankar highlighted India's stakes and its continuing concern that decisions should be made by people in Afghanistan without use of force.
The Indian side also conveyed to the US that cross-border terrorism was completely unacceptable to New Delhi, they said.
On Singh-Esper talks, the officials said both the ministers explored ways to further deepen cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, enhance military-to-military ties, and reviewed key regional security challenges including in India's neighbourhood.
They said while deliberating on regional security challenges, the two sides briefly touched upon India's border row with China in eastern Ladakh.
The issue of China's aggressive military behaviour is expected to figure prominently during Tuesday's talks, sources indicated.
In the last few months, the US has been strongly critical of China over a range of contentious issues including the border standoff with India, its military assertiveness in the South China Sea and the way Beijing handled the anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
About provisions of BECA, the officials said the agreement will give India access to classified geo-spatial data as well as critical information having significant military applications.
During Jaishankar-Pompeo meeting, the two sides also followed up on their Indo-Pacific engagement and the Quad deliberations, and discussed several key issues like maritime security, counter-terrorism cooperation, open connectivity and resilient supply chain.
According to US Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown, from addressing the shared challenges of COVID-19 and responding to regional security issues, to collaborating on vaccine development and economic prosperity, Pompeo and Jaishankar agreed that the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership is critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world.
Describing his meeting as productive, Jaishankar tweeted "warm and productive meeting with Secretary Pompeo. Discussed key bilateral, regional and global issues. Reviewed progress in ties: grown substantially in every domain. Our foreign policy consultations and cooperation have expanded."
On his part, Pompeo tweeted that he was pleased to be back in New Delhi for constructive meetings.
After his delegation-level talks with Esper, Singh tweeted that the discussions will add new vigour to India-US defence relations.
"India is delighted to host the US Secretary of Defence, Dr Mark Esper. Our talks today were fruitful, aimed at further deepening defence cooperation in a wide range of areas. Today's discussions will add new vigour to India-US defence relations & mutual cooperation," he said in the tweet.
Apart from strengthening military-to-military cooperation and boosting partnership in the Indo-Pacific region, the issue of expeditious supply of contracted weapon systems by the US to India figured prominently in the deliberations.
Earlier, Singh received Esper at the lawns of the South Block in Raisina Hills, reflecting the importance India is attaching to the visit by the two top officials of the Trump administration.
The US defence secretary was also accorded a tri-services guard of honour.
The Indian delegation at the talks between Singh and Esper included Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, Army Chief Gen MM Naravane, Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh and Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and DRDO Chairman G Satheesh Reddy.
Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla too held a separate meeting with US Under Secretary of State Brian Bulatao who is part of the US delegation.
Officials and experts said that India and US have been growing closer in the military and strategic domain since 9/11.
“The BECA, if signed, would be a natural progression of our defence relations and would enable real interoperability and information sharing in a challenging global environment. India stands to gain more as we would receive geo spatial images, maps, etc of the highest quality, a capability that we do not possess. In a globalised world with multi-pronged challenges that India faces, the US is best equipped (and willing) to fulfill our security needs. But India needs to tread carefully,” an Indo-US expert Harinder Sekhon said.
She also dismissed fears of over-dependence on the US as unfounded.
“We are a vibrant democracy and in foreign policy too have so far maintained a balance between our two major defence partners, as was seen in the signing of the S400 agreement with Russia despite the threat of US sanctions. The US needs us as do we need them. So we have to be smart but not negative, nor succumb completely to US tactics and pressures,” she said.
In June 2016, the US had designated India a "Major Defence Partner" intending to elevate defence trade and technology sharing to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners.
The two countries inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 that allows their militaries use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies as well as provide for deeper cooperation.
The two countries signed another pact called COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 that provides for interoperability between the two militaries and provides for sale of high end technology from the US to India.
According to the US government, India maintains the largest fleet of C-17 and P-8 aircraft outside of the US, and as of 2020, Washington has authorised more than USD 20 billion in defence sales to India.
The first edition of the 2+2 dialogue was held in Delhi in September 2018 after the mechanism was approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.
The second edition of the dialogue took place in Washington in December last year.
The new framework of the ministerial dialogue was initiated in order to provide a forward-looking vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries.
(With PTI Inputs)