India-U.S. strategic relations are on the ascendant. The signing of the last of the three foundational agreements, the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA), consolidates the bilateral relationship, with the armed forces of the two countries now having a policy mechanism for sharing geospatial intelligence. The BECA is as much defence cooperation as it is a space cooperation agreement, and with its signing, the era of diffidence in the US-India bilateral is over.
The U.S. is the foremost space power in the world. Its pole position is credited to its national space policies that have decentralized space capabilities and invested across the commercial, military, and civilian domains. Until 2019, India’s space sector was singularly civilian and led by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). However, the establishment of the Defence Space Agency in May 2019, under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence, and the encouragement given to commercial space players by the announcement of space reforms in May 2020, will create new entities in India that can be counterparts to the Pentagon and to the U.S.’ vast private space ecosystem. Both the Pentagon and South Bloc seem to have now finally assembled the necessary military agencies to cater to their common security necessities.
The timing is significant. Over the past six years, India has taken a defensive-offensive posture to ward off the growing extremism spreading across Asia. The year India signed the first foundational agreement, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, was also when India carried out the surgical strikes against Pakistan. The next foundational agreement, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), was signed in 2018 and it was followed by the 2019 Balakot air strikes. and , the strong riposte by India during the 2020 India-China skirmishes in the Himalayas preceded the BECA agreement. Although there is no direct relationship between the contracts signed and the incidents, India’s is now clearly graduating as a progressive and battle-hardened resistance to military aggression, economic coercion, and terrorism.
With a wider-network of high-fidelity and low-latency communication, and high-resolution remote-sensing and navigation capabilities, India’s ability to defend its interests and support its strategic partners has expanded from the limits of its neighbourhood to the wider swathes of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific region. However, with such growing space capabilities, it is also necessary for India to ward off threats to its space-based assets. This threat is recognized by India’s strategic partners and therefore when India conducted the Mission Shakti anti-satellite test in 2019, partners like the U.S., were measured in their opprobrium and tacit with their acquiescence.
A strong security partnership with India has been central to numerous defence bills passed in the U.S. parliament over the past four years. These have been bipartisan in nature, signifying India’s stature in the U.S.’ global security matrix. This acknowledgement began with Section 1292 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 that recognizes India’s status as a major defence partner of the U.S., and “elevates defense trade and technology cooperation between the United States and India to a level commensurate with the closest allies and partners of the United States.” The 2019 United States-India Enhanced Cooperation Act recognizes U.S. policy to “continue to enhance defense and security cooperation with India in order to advance United States interests in the South Asia and greater Indo-Asia-Pacific regions.” In the 2020 Joint Statement released during the state visit of President Donald Trump in February, the two countries pledged greater cooperation in space domain awareness and other complementary areas of military cooperation, including intelligence-sharing, co-development of equipment, and personnel training. The suite of joint statements and bills recognises the growing role of space-based assets, increasing space equipment interoperability and smoother sharing of space-based intelligence in the U.S.-India strategic partnership.
Nations that are believers of a rule-based order acknowledge India’s mature geopolitics and its credibility in maintaining peace and stability in the Eastern Hemisphere. Both India and the U.S. are now well-connected with the civilian space umbilical through the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Civil Space Cooperation, as well as with the military space umbilical through the BECA.
To create a fully-formed space partnership, the focus must now be on synergizing their fast-growing commercial space sectors. This comes with its own challenges. Protecting the intellectual property, preventing predatory investments, countering hostile take-overs, offering them leeway to operate within the patrol of outer space laws and legislations, will increasingly become important. This guardianship cannot be an entirely domestic undertaking for any country and needs bilateral and multilateral diplomatic manoeuvring. This is the next step of cooperation for India and the U.S., as believers and gate-keepers of a rule-based astropolitical order. With India’s space start-ups already plugged into the U.S. ecosystems, a formal bilateral space-economy partnership agreement can be the next one to be signed.
Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme, Gateway House.
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