NEW DELHI: India and the United States signed an accord on secure military communications that both sides hailed as a breakthrough on Thursday, possibly opening the way for sales of sensitive US military equipment to India.
The pact was signed after the US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for talks aimed at deepening political and security ties.
Before coming to India, Pompeo held talks in Islamabad with Pakistan's new government and generals, aiming to smooth over tensions after President Donald Trump took a tough new line towards Pakistan over longstanding accusations it is not doing enough to root out the Afghan Taliban fighters on its territory.
The presence of US troops in Afghanistan has heightened US sensitivity to the rivalry between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that was signed on Thursday had been stalled for years because of India's concerns that it would open up its communications network to the US military. Pompeo said the accord was a "major step" forward that officials have previously said would allow the US to transfer high-tech equipment such as armed surveillance drones.
New Delhi has been seeking the drones to monitor the Indian Ocean where China, a close ally of Pakistan, has been making repeated forays in recent years. India and the United States also agreed to open a hotline between their foreign heads and hold joint exercises involving the air force, navy and the army off the eastern Indian coast in 2019, the Indian government said.
"The momentum in our defence partnership has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India-US relations to unprecedented heights," Sitharaman said. A senior US defense official said the United States had only signed similar pacts with fewer than 30 other countries.
"It not only allows us to be more interoperable with India, but it allows India to be more interoperable across its own systems. Most significantly, it opens up a range of defence technologies to India," Joseph Felter, deputy assistant secretary of defence for South and Southeast Asia, told a small group of reporters.
Felter said that by signing the agreement, some Indian weapon systems would see an immediate increase in capabilities, including the C-130 and C-17 aircraft. The United States has emerged as India's second largest arms supplier, closing $15 billion worth of deals in the past decade.
Experts believe the signing of the COMCASA agreement could also reduce the chances of the United States imposing sanctions on India for looking to buy Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. The United States has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia, under which any country engaged with its defence and intelligence sectors could face secondary US sanctions. However, a new defence bill proposes giving the US president authority to grant waivers when national security interests are at stake.
Felter said the issue of a potential S-400 purchase by India did not come up during talks. Later, Pompeo told reporters the United States was not seeking to punish India for its proposed purchase.
Meanwhile, India and US after two-plus-two talks in a joint statement denounced "any use of terrorist proxies in the region" and pointed fingers towards Islamabad.
"In that context, they called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries," said the statement. Both countries reaffirmed their support for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that would advance and strengthen the framework for global cooperation and reinforce the message that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism, according to the statement.
"On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, they called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks," the joint statement said.
They also welcomed the launch of a bilateral dialogue on designation of terrorists in 2017, which is strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, IS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, Haqqani Network, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, D-Company, and their affiliates, the statement said, adding that the two sides further reaffirmed their commitment to ongoing and future cooperation to ensure a stable cyberspace environment and to prevent cyber-attacks.
Recognising their two countries are strategic partners, major and independent stakeholders in world affairs, the ministers committed to work together on regional and global issues. They have also decided to establish secure communication between their respective offices to maintain a regular high-level communication on emerging developments.
In closing remarks after the meeting, Pompeo called the mechanism historic and important. "We agreed on the scope and scale of military cooperation with India as our major defence partner," he said.
Sushma Swaraj welcomed recent designations of the Lashkar-e-Taiba by the US. “They underscore the international community's scrutiny over the threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistan," she alleged.
"We also discussed the situation in South Asia in some details," Swaraj told reporters, adding that India supports President Trump's South Asia policy. "His call for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-border terrorism finds resonance with us. We want to also ensure that the call for Pakistan to stop using terrorism as an instrument of state policy," she said.
Swaraj said that both sides discussed the ongoing efforts in promoting an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan government-controlled reconciliation process, and "this brings together all ethnic groups and political formations in the country. We also had productive exchange on other regional issues as well."
The joint statement earlier also reaffirmed the "strategic importance of India's designation as a major defence partner of the US and take mutually agreed upon steps to strengthen defence ties further and promote better defence and security coordination and cooperation."
The statement said that they welcomed the signing of a communications compatibility and security agreement that will facilitate access to advance defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US inclusion of India by the US origin platforms.
The two sides also recognised their growing military to military ties, and committed to creation of a new "tri-services exercise and to further increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries and defence organisations."
In his remarks after the meeting in India, Pompeo mentioned Pakistan saying that "there was a broad agreement between myself, Foreign Minister Qureshi, and Prime Minister Imran Khan that we need to take steps that will deliver outcomes on the ground, allowing us to begin to build confidence and trust between our two countries.”