Barely a week before the presidential election in the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper arrived in New Delhi to participate in the third edition of the 2+2 ministerial talks with their Indian counterparts, S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh. The meeting had additional significance as it was being held at a time when the situation at the India-China border remains tense. Top Indian and U.S. officials have met regularly since Sino-Indian relations started deteriorating from the middle of this year.
Jaishankar and Pompeo met in Tokyo on the occasion of the Quadrilateral (Quad) Foreign Ministers’ meet in the first week of October. They have also had regular telephonic conversations, with the latter constantly pushing for New Delhi to take a tougher line on the border imbroglio. The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defence, Stephen E. Biegun, was in New Delhi in the second week of October to prepare for the 2+2 meeting. In a speech delivered at the U.S.-India Forum, Biegun emphasised that the partnership between the two countries was “a fundamental alignment along shared security and geo-political goals, shared interests and shared values”. He said that as “both countries advance towards that goal, there is an elephant in the room—China”.
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The 2+2 talks in New Delhi in the last week of October produced five bilateral agreements, the most important being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the three foundational defence agreements between the two countries. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that BECA would “enable greater sharing of geospatial information between our two militaries”. The signing of BECA is also expected to hasten the delivery of Reaper and Predator armed drones from the U.S. The drones are said to be capable of long-distance precision strikes on targets located both on land and on sea. The Indian armed forces had requested the government to expedite the purchase of these drones after the face-off with the People’s Liberation Army earlier this year. Six of them are expected to arrive soon with a price tag of $3 billion.
The two sides also signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) on technical cooperation in the field of earth observation and earth sciences, an extension of the MoU on the establishment of the Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership. The other two agreements related to the exchange of customs data and a letter of intent regarding cooperation in promoting traditional Indian medicine. The joint statement issued after the meet said that India would join the “blue dot” network launched by the Donald Trump administration to counter the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has made tremendous inroads into Asia.
All South Asian and Southeast Asian countries except India have signed up for the BRI. The two sides said that they remain committed to maintaining “a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region built on “sustainable, transparent, quality” infrastructure development projects. Both Washington and New Delhi have alleged that Beijing is ensnaring developing nations in the region in “a debt trap”. However, South Asian countries are yet to be convinced with this point of view. In any case, China is the only country ready to invest massively in these countries on a “no-strings attached” basis.
South China Sea
The joint statement also specifically mentioned the South China Sea issue, stating that freedom of navigation should be respected in the disputed waters. The U.S. Navy, along with allies such as Japan, has increased its joint naval exercises this year in the South China Sea. Military experts have expressed fears that the area has become a flashpoint that could trigger a real military confrontation between the U.S. and China. The U.S.’ allies, including new ones such as India, could be drawn into a wider war in a region which is of little strategic interest to them.
Defence Secretary Esper told the media in New Delhi that the two countries should now “focus on institutionalising and regularising our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future”. He said that this was particularly important “in light of increasing aggression and destabilising actions from China”. Both Minister for External Affairs Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while not mentioning China by name, left the audience with little doubt that they were on the same page as the Trump administration. Jaishankar told the media that the Indo-Pacific was “a particular focus of the talks” and that the emergence of a single pre-eminent power in the region was not acceptable to New Delhi. He added that “a multi-polar world must have a multi-polar Asia as its basis”.
Jaishankar, who has been credited by many foreign policy analysts and U.S. officials as the man behind the revival of the Quad, has always been upfront about his pro-U.S. tilt. He told the media in New Delhi: “The ability of India and the United States to work closely in defence and foreign policy has a larger resonance. Together we can make a real difference when it comes to global and regional challenges, whether it is in respecting territorial integrity, promoting maritime domain awareness, countering terrorism or ensuring security.”
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also did not mention China by name, but the U.S. transcript of his speech delivered at the 2+2 meet quotes him as saying that India was “challenged to reckless aggression” on its northern borders. This line is missing in the official Indian transcript. The Indian press release only talks about the “challenges India is facing currently” and the importance of the India-U.S. partnership at this juncture.
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With the signing of BECA, India now has the status of a de facto military ally of the U.S. Before signing BECA, India had initialled the Logistics Exchanges Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the Communication, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. LEMOA allows the U.S. armed forces to establish “lily pad” bases on Indian soil. The COMCASA allows India access to advanced U.S. military platforms with encrypted and secure communications links. The U.S. will help India develop small-size “drone swarms” that are capable of destroying enemy air defence systems.
After the signing of the three agreements, India now has access to the kind of high-tech U.S. military technology that was previously available only to NATO member-states. Rajnath Singh said that the signing of BECA, along with the earlier two agreements, was “a significant achievement”. The previous United Progressive Alliance government was reluctant to sign any of the three agreements on the grounds that it would seriously impede India’s strategic autonomy. The National Democratic Alliance government has thrown caution to the winds in its haste to curry favour with the Trump administration and join the anti-China coalition. Despite enticements, no other South Asian or Southeast Asian country has signed up as an ally of Washington in the new cold war that Trump and his main cheerleader Pompeo want to kick-start.
Detrimental to national interests, says Left
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, in a joint statement issued after the signing of BECA, said that the so-called foundational agreements are detrimental to national interests. The statement from the Left parties said: “The agreements bind the Indian armed forces with the U.S. military and its strategic designs. The interlocking of the communications and electronics systems are going to adversely affect the integrity and independent decision-making of the Indian defence structure. These agreements will make us dependent on weaponry whose technology and systems are controlled by the United States.” The statement also emphasised that the military alliance with the U.S. would have long-term consequences for India’s foreign policy and strategic autonomy. The Left parties have urged the government to negotiate with China “at the highest political and diplomatic level” to find a solution to the border issue instead of kowtowing to the U.S.
Pompeo, true to style, continued on a verbal rampage against Beijing during his visit to New Delhi. In the quixotic attempt to delegitimise the Chinese government, both Pompeo and Trump now prefer to attack the Communist Party of China, calling it the fountainhead of all evil in the region and beyond. In his opening remarks at the 2+2 talks, Pompeo said that the U.S. and India were “cooperating on defeating the virus which originated from Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the world”.
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After his trip to India, Pompeo’s next stops were the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where he tried to whip up anti-China sentiments but with little success. Sri Lanka is a crucial link in the BRI and has so far remained steadfast in its commitments to Beijing. The U.S. and India are partnering to detach South Asian countries from Chinese influence, but are in no position to help the countries build up their infrastructure and economies like the Chinese have done so far. The Indian government has allowed the U.S. to do all the heavy lifting in the region. New Delhi did not object when the U.S. signed a defence deal with the Maldives in September. Previous Indian governments have been sensitive to U.S. military interference in their backyard.
Pompeo has been an extremely busy man lately. He has been globetrotting in a desperate bid to score brownie points for his politically beleaguered boss, President Trump. In the last couple of months, he visited various capitals, arm-twisting governments to make deals that would help Trump win the election. Some of the key decisions and the deals the Trump administration made this year could have a long-term impact on global politics. These include the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the declaration of a new cold war against China after the outbreak of the pandemic, and the pressuring of Arab countries to recognise Israel.
If Trump loses, as the opinion polls predict, it will be difficult for the next administration to roll back many of the decisions the current administration has taken. Joe Biden, the presumptive winner, has already said that he would not be moving the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem and has urged more Arab countries to recognise Israel despite the Jewish state continuing to ride roughshod over the Palestinians.
Senior Trump administration officials have openly called for the creation of an Asian military bloc on the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), with India as one of the lynchpins. It was after intense prodding from Washington that New Delhi agreed to revive the Quadrilateral military alliance. After a long absence, Australia has been re-invited by India to join the annual Malabar military exercises. The exercises are being described as part of the efforts by the four leading “democracies” of the Asia Pacific region to strength defence cooperation and to deter a resurgent China.
This year’s exercise is to be held in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. An official statement from the Indian side claimed that the participants in the Malabar exercises “collectively support, a free, open and inclusive Pacific and remain committed to a rules based international order”. Pompeo was more forthright, saying that it was more critical than ever for the four countries to collaborate “to protect our people and our partners from the Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation, corruption and coercion”.
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The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson sharply criticised Pompeo’s antics. The official said that Pompeo was clinging to “cold war mentality and ideological biases. We urge him to abandon the cold war mentality and zero-sum game mentality and stop sowing discord between China and regional countries as well as undermining regional peace and stability”. The Chinese Embassy in Delhi was more forthright in its criticism. It accused Pompeo and Esper of having violated diplomatic norms during their visit to India. The statement from the embassy went on to add that the “Indo-Pacific” strategy was a U.S. policy “to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs and to stoke up geo-political competition, in a bid to maintain U.S. dominance, organise closed and exclusive ideological cliques”.