China factor will continue to impact India-US relations

With both India and the US worried about Chinese designs in Asia and the world, both will be eager to forge strong political, security and economic relations, writes Aneek Chatterjee for South Asia Monitor

Aneek Chatterjee Nov 04, 2020
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October 2020 will be cherished as a remarkable month for India-US relations. US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark T. Esper visited India on October 26-27 for the third 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the two countries. They met with their Indian counterparts S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh. The top American officials also called on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during their stay in New Delhi. With a view to preparing grounds for the 2+2 Dialogue, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun visited India from October 12-14. 

Jaishankar met his American counterpart Pompeo in Tokyo on October 6mon the sidelines of the Quad meeting (among Australia, India, Japan, and the US) in the Japanese capital. Never before in the history of the India-US bilateral relationship, such frequent high-level interactions have taken place in a single calendar month. Coming in the wake of Chinese aggression towards India, and increasing American displeasure with China, these diplomatic exchanges assumed significance for both nations.  

Positive gains from third 2+2                      

The third edition of the 2+2 dialogue yielded significant results like the earlier two dialogues. The two countries signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that would allow both nations to access a wide variety of geospatial data from each other, like detailed maps, nautical and aeronautical charts, and imagery. These data will help India’s ballistic missiles or drones the ability to strike targets thousands of miles away with accuracy.

India will also have access, under the BECA, to the highly accurate navigation satellite networks run by the US. The agreement also includes sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone interceptions, and data exchange on Chinese troops and weapons deployment along the 3500 km long India-China border. BECA came after LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), COMCASA (Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement) and GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) the two nations had signed earlier.

The US normally signs these crucial defence agreements with countries it wants to engage in sincere and long-term defence and strategic partnerships. Apart from BECA, the 2+2 meeting resulted in cooperation between India and the US on a whole range of other issues from COVID-19 pandemic to shared vision for the Indo-Pacific and global leadership; to matters like earth sciences and counter-terrorism practices.

America’s tough stance on China

America’s tough position on China was visibly evident before and after the 2+2 dialogue. On October 21, a few days before leaving for India and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region, Pompeo told a press conference, “I’m especially looking forward to doing that (discussions) with Secretary Esper and our 2+2 ministerial dialogue with our Indian friends…  I’m sure that my meetings will also include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

In India and during his visit to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia, Pompeo maintained this anti-China position. In India, Pompeo said, ”Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation - the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

Esper expressed the same feelings when he said that the two nations focus must now “be on institutionalizing and regularizing our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future.” That, he said, was particularly important “in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing actions by China.” The third 2+2 dialogue surely provided the US the chance to forge stronger security and strategic partnership with India in the light of increasingly aggressive designs of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The two nations need to have closer cooperation between them as well as with like-minded nations in the future to counter Chinese strategies in the Indo-Pacific. In this connection, the successful conclusion of the second Quad meeting in Tokyo in early October was a welcome development. The Joint Statement issued after the 2+2 meeting expressed satisfaction on holding the Quad meeting and hoped that the Quad would be strengthened further with annual meetings to chalk out areas of intense cooperation among Australia, India, Japan and the US. The joint statement also welcomed the inclusion of the Royal Australian Navy in the US-India-Japan Malabar naval exercises scheduled to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea in November.

American plans to counter China in the broader Asia-Pacific region have been adequately reflected in the press meetings of the two top officials of the Trump administration and in the third 2+2 Dialogue. It became evident that the US wanted closer and stronger defence and strategic partnership with India and like-minded nations of the region. The current trade war between China and the US and American suspicion on China over the spread of the coronavirus, have contributed towards a tough US stand on China in recent times.  

Relations strengthened during Modi’s tenure

The foundations of an ‘engaged’ India-US relations were laid in the year 2000. During Prime Minister Modi’s tenure, India-US relations have scaled new heights. Several factors could be attributed to this soaring engagement:

*Modi’s strong personal bonds with President Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the two American presidents he had interacted with so far.

*His ability to take strong decisions.

*Elevating the once rhetorical strategic partnership to a new forceful strategic partnership where the Americans are willing to provide crucial security knowledge and equipment.

*Establishing important dialogue mechanisms between the two countries that help foster engagements throughout the year.

*Bilateral trade volume has increased, and the US has again become India’s top trading partner from the year 2018-19. However, in this segment, the two countries often agreed to disagree, a sign of a healthy partnership.

*Convergence of ideas and national interests (like democracy, pluralism, and containment of China). 

The China factor

The China factor will continue to impact India-US relations in the near future. With both India and the US worried about Chinese designs in Asia and the world, both will be eager to forge strong political, security and economic relations. They will continue to involve like-minded countries and expand the sphere of multilateralism in international politics. Both India and the US will also reach out to the not so like-minded nations in their efforts to contain authoritarian regimes. These two democracies, therefore, are all set to achieve newer heights in their relationship in the future.

(The writer, an international relations analyst, was professor and head of political science at Presidency University, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at akchatjee@gmail.com)

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