By Rajesh Roy in New Delhi and William Mauldin in Washington
The U.S. and India are expected to sign a key military agreement this week, bolstering cooperation in the Pacific and Indian oceans to counter an increasingly assertive China, Indian officials said.
The satellite-intelligence pact will be completed during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to New Delhi, Indian officials said, part of an annual gathering with their Indian counterparts Tuesday.
A senior U.S. defense official didn't confirm the planned signing, but cited significant progress. He also said the pact, known as the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or Beca, would "allow for expanded geospatial-information sharing between our armed forces."
India's cabinet, which met under Prime Minister Narendra Modi early last week, approved the draft pact, setting the stage for a formal signing, according to two Indian government officials privy to the development.
The pact would give India access to advanced American map and satellite imagery, enhancing the accuracy of automated weapons, drones and missiles, the Indian officials said.
Besides India, Mr. Pompeo is visiting Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia.
The enhanced cooperation with New Delhi comes at a time of heightened tensions between India and China along their Himalayan border, where the nuclear-armed neighbors have deployed tens of thousands of troops with artillery since a deadly hand-to-hand clash in mid-June.
"In the current scenario of the border standoff with China, geospatial intelligence and real-time images will be crucial for us," said one of the Indian officials.
Mr. Modi's efforts to strengthen ties with partner countries -- especially the others in what is called the Quad group, Australia, Japan and the U.S. -- are aligning with the Trump administration's much more assertive approach to China, said Harsh V. Pant, head of strategic affairs at Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, independent research organization that promotes a "strong and prosperous India in a fair and equitable world."
"The fact that the U.S. is spending so much diplomatic capital on enhancing ties with India when an election is a week away underscores the growing maturity of Indo-U.S. engagement and the fact that China's rise is a challenge that cannot wait for the electoral cycle to get over, " said Mr. Pant.
The U.S. and India have grown closer over the past two decades, starting with a landmark political deal that legitimized India's nuclear arsenal and opened the door to sales of civilian nuclear technology from the U.S.
From essentially zero dollars in defense cooperation in 2008, India-U.S bilateral defense trade has grown to more than $20 billion in 2020, according to the State Department. American aviation and aerospace companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., as well as U.S. suppliers of arms and ammunition, have pursued business opportunities in India.
During the first "2+2" dialogue of top defense and foreign-policy officials in 2018, the two countries signed an agreement to allow the sharing of encrypted military intelligence. The two nations have also signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which permits their respective militaries to replenish materiel and fuel from each other's bases.
Still, India has traditionally emphasized its nonaligned status, and most experts don't think New Delhi is likely to become an official treaty ally of the U.S. in the same way as Australia, Japan or South Korea.
"The U.S. and India will need to craft their security partnership in a way that it stays out of the alliance system," said Michael Kugleman, senior South Asia expert at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan Washington policy think tank chartered by Congress. "The Quad offers one such pathway: It binds together four like-minded nations that are increasingly willing to engage in maritime cooperation."
The U.S. is also looking for better maritime cooperation with island countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as China seeks to press its own claims and boost Beijing's influence through its Belt and Road initiative, focused on building infrastructure and trade.
"We are enforcing what has been long known as international law and preventing folks from trying to dominate or monopolize access to any particular area," said David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific, told reporters Thursday.
After New Delhi, Mr. Pompeo is set to visit Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, and meet Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a politician seen as friendly to China.
"We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices," said Dean Thompson, a State Department official overseeing South and Central Asian affairs.
Then Mr. Pompeo has a stop in Male, the capital of the Maldives, an island country in the Indian Ocean. The visit comes just weeks after Maldivian and U.S. defense officials signed a cooperation agreement.
Mr. Pompeo will then meet President Joko Widodo in Jakarta. The Trump administration has sought to defend the maritime and fishing claims of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian nations against competing claims by China.
"Rules provide the grease between countries so we don't have unfortunate incidents," Mr. Stilwell said. "So again, our support for not just Indonesia but all the claimant states in Southeast Asia and pretty much everywhere provides that, prevents instability and conflict."
Nancy Youssef contributed to this article.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires