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EFSAS Commentary

The maturing and deepening of the India – US relationship has been hastened by China’s expansionist designs


The time at which the third 2+2 meeting of the Foreign and Defense Ministers of India and the United States (US) was held in New Delhi on 27 October, as also the circumstances surrounding the holding of the meeting, convey a lot about where the relationship between the two countries stands at the moment and the trajectory in which it is heading. There is little doubt that over the last two decades India-US ties have improved steadily, but the fact that the 2+2 dialogue was held just a week before the 3 November elections in the US in which there is little certainty over which of the two candidates would emerge victorious reflects the confidence that both sides have in the robustness of the core of the relationship. It is also a fact that bipartisan recognition in the US of the need to counter Chinese belligerence, and India physically experiencing over the last six months the brunt of Chinese expansionism, have played an important part in the meeting being held at this juncture. Without the commonality and the immediacy of the Chinese threat, the US would in all likelihood have deferred the meeting to after the elections. India would also have preferred to await the results of the US elections, especially when the current trends suggest that the incumbent President Donald Trump could end up losing. That the meeting was held in person, and not virtually, at a time when both India and the US are in the midst of a raging COVID-19 pandemic is illustrative of the importance that both sides attach to furtherance of their bilateral relationship.

By all accounts, China figured prominently when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper met with Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in the Indian capital. In his opening remarks at the 2+2 dialogue, Pompeo asserted that “Today is real opportunity for two great democracies like ours to grow closer... There is much more work to do for sure. We have a lot to discuss today, from cooperating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region”. At a press briefing following the dialogue, Pompeo pledged that the US will stand by India in the face of Chinese aggression. He said, “This morning, we visited the National War Memorial to honor the brave men and women of the Indian Armed Forces who have sacrificed for the world’s largest democracy, including 20 that were killed by the PLA forces in the Galwan Valley in June. The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty”. Pompeo added, “Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP is no friend to democracy, rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation and free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific. I am glad to say that the US and India are taking steps to strengthen our cooperation against all manner of threats and not just those posed by the Chinese Communist Party. In the past year, we’ve expanded our cooperation on cyber issues, our navies have held joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. I know too, happily, that Australia is joining Malabar 2020 Naval Exercise. May the United States keep leading together along with India on the issues of our time”.

Esper, at the press conference, also took aim at China even as he noted that defense ties remained a key pillar of the overall bilateral relationship between India and the US. He also said that “Based on our shared values and common interests, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and de-stabilizing activities by China”. Interestingly, prior to his visit to India, Esper had last week hinted at a possible Indian role in the tightly knit Five Eyes alliance that facilitates the sharing of signals intelligence (SIGINT) among the US, the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The Five Eyes are required to share amongst themselves all SIGINT they gather, as well as the methods and techniques relating to SIGINT operations. Esper, while referring to the Five Eyes alliance, had said that it was also addressing the “challenges in the Indo-Pacific” and “how do we cooperate together?” He had added, “So you see a lot more closer collaboration come out. And this will be reflected in our meetings next week in New Delhi, as well, when we travel there”. India’s possible association with the Five Eyes alliance would benefit it as much as it would the alliance, given India’s unique location bordering Tibet.

India, as has been its wont, remained careful about specifically mentioning China in the press briefings and other public interactions on the sidelines of the 2+2 dialogue. Asked if Beijing was a factor in the agreements signed between India and the US, Jaishankar said, “There isn’t one factor, there are two factors. One is called India, the other is called the United States of America.  If you look at the growth of this relationship, as I pointed out in virtually every domain, it’s been – it’s actually been very, very remarkable over the last 20 years, but I would say especially the last few years. This is a relationship that serves our national interest well, as it does that of the United States. But what is equally important is that the Indo-US collaboration can be a force of good.  So in that sense it is truly global, it is truly comprehensive, it is truly strategic, and that’s the reason why we are meeting”. He also said that “India welcomes an expanded partnership with the United States… The 2+2 dialogue has a pol-mil agenda that underlines our close bilateral relationship. Our national security convergences have obviously grown in a more multi-polar world. We meet today to not only advance our own interests but to ensure that our bilateral cooperation makes a positive contribution in the world arena”.

During the 2+2 dialogue, the two countries signed a number of agreements, the most significant of which was the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), a key defense pact that will enable India to avail of US expertise on geospatial intelligence and sharpen the accuracy of weapons and automated hardware systems used for military purposes. With this, India completed the signing of the three key US defense foundational agreements that are all aimed at interoperability of various platforms. New Delhi and Washington signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. They also signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), another agreement aimed at deepening bilateral defense and strategic ties. The other agreements signed on 27 October related to cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, nuclear energy, oceanic and atmospheric sciences, and cancer research, as well as to coordination during the COVID-19 pandemic and the sharing of customs data.

Importantly for India, the signing of the BECA has paved the way for India to acquire armed drones like Reapers or Predators from the US for long-range precision strikes against hostile targets on land and sea. As per The Times of India, the Indian armed forces have been keen to acquire 30 “hunter-killer” weaponised Sea Guardian or MQ-9 Reaper drones, with fast-track procurement of 6 of them amidst India’s ongoing military confrontation with China. India is also set to work with the US on developing small-sized “drone swarms” that can overwhelm and destroy an enemy’s air defense systems.

The agreement on cooperation in counter-terrorism was also significant for India in the context of Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism directed against it. Jaishankar informed that “Discussions also covered developments in our neighbouring countries. We made it clear that cross-border terrorism is completely unacceptable”. The joint statement issued after the 2+2 dialogue underlined that both sides had referred to cross-border terrorism and had asked Pakistan to take “immediate, sustained and irreversible action” on terrorists and terror entities operating from its soil. It stated, “The ministers called on Pakistan to take immediate, sustained and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorist attacks, and to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators and planners of all such attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai, Uri, and Pathankot”. The two sides also agreed to continue information exchanges about sanctions against terror groups and individuals, as well as efforts to counter the financing and operations of terrorist organizations, radicalism, use of the internet by terrorists, and cross-border movement of terrorists.

The Chinese response to the 2+2 dialogue revealed its acute discomfort over the closer alignment being forged between India and the US. In its official responses, however, China chose to attack only the US, leaving its mouthpieces such as The Global Times to condescendingly moralize to India. Immediately after the meeting Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, during his regular press briefing, asked the US to “stop hyping up the so-called ‘China threat’, and stop the misguided efforts to sow discord between regional countries”. He added that “The Indo-Pacific strategy proposed by the US is preaching outdated Cold War mentality and...confrontation and geopolitical game”. The following day, on 28 October, the Chinese Embassy in India issued a “solemn statement” against Pompeo and Esper “for openly attacking China and the Communist Party of China” during their visit.

It had been suggested in the EFSAS Commentary of 03-07-2020 titled China may well rue pushing India to the crossroads and possibly toward the United States that India had been steadfast in its reluctance to become so closely associated with the US that the relationship threatened China. Despite Chinese provocations since then, the Indian government has persisted with this policy and has continued to give China the long rope. At the 2+2, not only did the Indian Ministers refrain from directly naming China, even the joint statement meticulously avoided naming and shaming the country.

China’s thinking and assessments, meanwhile, appear to be getting increasingly muddled. While it asks the US to “stop the misguided efforts to sow discord between regional countries”, China itself has been the primary proponent of such a policy throughout Asia. In South Asia alone, China has sought to grab territory from tiny neighbours such as Bhutan and Nepal and to wrest control over strategic assets in small countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives by luring them into debt traps through its dubious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Pompeo described the BRI aptly when he said, “The Chinese Communist Party wants the same thing in every place — they want to control and dominate, they want to have political influence, they want to be extractive. You see this in the Belt and Road Initiative… These are predatory economic activities, designed a little bit to build a road for someone, but mostly to get their teeth into that country, to be able to exert political influence in that place and when the time is right to make that country pay a tribute”.

As for the “mutual respect” that China keeps parroting, it has created a client State out of Pakistan which it constantly seeks to use against India. It has not only accepted territory that originally belonged to the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and whose legal title was held by India by virtue of the Princely State’s accession to it, as a “gift” from Pakistan which was in illegal occupation of that territory, but it has also built its flagship BRI project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), through this disputed territory. China’s interpretation of “mutual respect” has been to repay India’s gesture of accepting the ‘One China policy’ by repeatedly blocking India’s membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) and preventing the designation of Pakistanis responsible for attacking India as terrorists at the United Nations (UN).

In an interview with the veteran Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta, Pompeo spoke about the growing bilateral ties between India and the US, which he averred had started “long before the Chinese Communist Party started causing as much trouble as it’s causing today”. He said, “It’s built on a set of shared understandings — we are two democracies, big democracies, vibrant democracies, with lots of different views. The relationship is based on a shared understanding on how the world works, the rule of law and transparency, trade to make two nations better”. Pompeo also spoke about the grouping of like-minded democracies that was evolving to counter the threat posed by China. Stressing that India is with like-minded countries and can never feel alone in its struggle against the “Chinese Communist Party”, Pompeo added, “I have watched the relationship between the US, Japan, Australia and India grow, deepen, broaden. We are called the Quad but put the name aside for a moment, we are four big democracies, with big economies, with a shared view of rule of law and transparency. With these kinds of relationships, none of these countries are ever alone”.

Despite Jaishankar’s recent assertion that India will “never” be part of an alliance framework, Beijing may by now already be ruing that its greed for a patch of barren, rocky mountain on the leeward side of the high Himalayas has not only served to bind India and the US closer together, but may also have brought the US right to the doorstep of China’s soft underbelly, Tibet.