COMCASA Is Good for India, But Not Great

Last week, we saw Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meet with Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defense Nirmala Sitharaman in the inaugural 2+2 US-India dialogue. The meeting addressed several key issues including defense deals, future security cooperation and the adoption of the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). COMCASA is one of the three key defense agreements that facilitates the transfer of a communication system to enhance cooperation between the US and Indian militaries. The other two deals were BECA and LEMOA, which also improved communication ties between the US and India. With the signing of COMCASA, India agreed to switch over to an American based security communication platform. This is a remarkable agreement in terms of US-India cooperation, particularly as both sides seek to bolster their place in the international system to counter China’s rise in the region.

Prime Minister Modi is more eager than ever to move closer to the US. From the Indian perspective, this agreement seems to benefit the US, and less so India. The main benefit for this agreement is the sale of many top-level military weaponry. Since 2007, India has acquired $17 billion worth of American military equipment. This sort of exchange has brought the two countries much closer. COMCASA will enable India to procure higher performance and secure communication technology that is only available to certain nations.

Besides technology, the US and India have agreed to set up direct phone lines between the US Secretary of State and India’s Minister of External Affairs. This sort of communication is unprecedented between the two nations and is definitely a step in the right direction for the US-India relationship.

But even with these positives, the negatives still weigh down the quality of the deal. There are many holes in the agreement that will become prevalent only a few years down the road from now. Now that the US has given access to India for communication and intelligence, it will require India to participate in many more military operations and exercises on the ground. Many fear that this will entangle India in the countless overseas military operations in which the US is involved. India should be able to keep its alliances open and multi-aligned without having its relationship with the US dominate its foreign policy.

For example, India uses a vast array of Russian military equipment and technology which will now be incompatible with the new American equipment that India is going to receive. India has also agreed to slow its purchase of Russian military goods and increase its purchasing of American military goods, which is good from an American perspective but not from an Indian one. As China and Russia grow closer and closer, this move away from Russian equipment will surely annoy China and create even more tension in the region. While it is beneficial that the US and India are drawing closer, COMCASA did not capture the potential that could have come out of the 2+2 talks. Instead it will enable an “inter-operability” with the US while damaging “intra-operability” within the Indian armed forces.

It was very clear that Washington was calling the shots during the 2+2. Delhi did not do enough to put Indian needs first and it is obvious that the Americans got away with a lot. While it is smart for the US and India to draw closer in their military and intelligence abilities in this age of Chinese expansion, the exclusion of Russian military goods will not ease those tensions.

COMCASA does show that the US is ready to move away from Pakistan and embrace India. This will also agitate Beijing, as China and Pakistan grow closer with their CPEC program, (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) which entails China’s funding of massive public infrastructure projects across Pakistan. COMCASA forces India to face a tough crossroads when it comes to foreign policy. India is not going to side with Pakistan or China on foreign policy, but still continues to be hesitant when it comes to the US, and is turning its back on Russia with this new agreement. India is not clearly aligning itself with one nation or alliance and must decide where it wants to fall on foreign policy, or it will likely face consequences down the road.

If India decides to align itself with the US, which it seems to be starting to do, then COMCASA is a solid step forward. However, there is still much that can be done. COMCASA drastically improves the technology and communication of India but in doing so, puts India at the whim of the US. India must assert itself on the international stage and not let itself be manipulated by other nations, especially if it aims to become a global superpower. We will see how COMCASA plays out for India and the US, and who benefits the most from it, in the long run.