US-India strategic consultations: Delhi treads cautiously on Chinese 'threats'

India has been careful to maintain that its closer ties with the US and its Indo-Pacific partners were not directed against anyone – diplomaticspeak that they weren't meant to be anti-China, writes Arul Louis for South Asia Monitor

Arul Louis Jul 08, 2020
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After senior Indian and US foreign affairs officials met virtually under the shadow of China's aggressive actions from Ladakh to the South China Sea, the separate statements on the bilateral consultation reflected New Delhi's diplomatic wariness and Washington's current aggressive posture towards Beijing.

India's Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale participating in the Foreign Office Consultations on Tuesday, July 7, discussed the "ongoing threats” to the international order and agreed to "endeavour to support each other's objectives," the State Department note on the meeting said.

But the press release from India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) after the consultation, held online because of the COVID-19 restrictions, was silent on these elements – the discussions of "threats" and "support" to each other's objectives as well as an agreement to work with other Indo-Pacific partners.

Following the fatal clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh last month, officials of the two countries have held talks to de-escalate the situation and both their troops have withdrawn from the point of confrontation along the Line of Actual Control.

India careful on China  

At this delicate diplomatic juncture, India wants to tread carefully and not appear to have the US drawn into it  - a prickly issue for Beijing - while for the State Department seems to have no qualms about giving off such a message.

India has been careful to maintain that its closer ties with the US and its Indo-Pacific partners were not directed against anyone – diplomaticspeak that they weren't meant to be anti-China.

There has been speculation that the Ladakh confrontation was motivated by Beijing's vexation with closer India-US ties at a time of its growing international estrangement.

Significantly, while previous statements from the White House and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been critical of China's aggressiveness in Ladakh, the State Department note was more forthright in expressing support for “each other's objectives” in the context of the “ongoing threats.”

Hale and Shringla "agreed to consult closely on all challenges and endeavour to support each other's objectives," according to the State Department note on the consultation.

"The discussions included ongoing threats to the rules-based international order, bilateral and multilateral diplomatic cooperation, maritime security, and the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic," the State Department said.

On the other hand, the US note was silent on the discussion of visa and trade issues that the MEA press release mentioned. The MEA said that the two diplomats also discussed visas for students and professionals, and trade, which have come under restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump.

Shringla participating in the consultation from New Delhi and Hale from Washington agreed to work to strengthen the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, the US and Indian statements said.

With China acting aggressively in recent months across the broad swathe of the Indo-Pacific involving several countries, regional strategic interests figured in the talks.

While there was unanimity in the two statements on strengthening Indo-Pacific cooperation, the MEA release omitted references to other partners in the region.

Shringla and Hale “discussed US-India cooperation on a full range of international issues and developed concrete steps to strengthen the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership established by their leaders," the State Department said.

The partnership was laid out in February in a joint statement issued when Trump visited India and met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

According to the Modi-Trump joint statement the partnership envisages greater defence and security cooperation, expanded joint military exercises and co-development and co-production of advanced defence equipment.

The State Department said that Shringla and Hale "affirmed the US and Indian visions of a free and open Indo-Pacific region" and "agreed to work with other Indo-Pacific partners to bring these visions to reality".

The MEA release spoke of reaffirming the commitment to “a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific” but was silent about other partners. The main partners are Japan and Australia, which together with India and the US form the Quad that promotes joint consultations and joint military exercises.

In the area of international cooperation, India's election to a two-year term starting in January on United Nations Security Council figured in their talks.

“They agreed on the need to deepen cooperation in the United Nations, especially during India's membership of the United Nations Security Council,” the MEA said. Washington has expressed support for India gaining a permanent seat on the Council.

Turning to the coronavirus pandemic that is roiling the world, Shringla and Hale stressed the cooperation between the two countries in pharmaceutical and vaccine development, which they said "will continue to play a critical role in the world's recovery from Covid-19", according to the State Department.

MEA's benign statement 

The MEA release was more modest on the COVID-19 issue, saying only, “they agreed to further strengthen the bilateral health partnership, including on pharmaceuticals and vaccine development.”

The MEA statement said Shringla and Hale “discussed ways to further enhance mutually beneficial trade and people-to-people ties, including through visa facilitation for students and professionals.”

On Monday the Trump administration ordered that foreign students who do only online courses will not be eligible for visas and this may affect a large proportion of the 202,000 Indians at US institutions of higher learning.

Last month, he suspended the issuance of most categories of H1-B visas issued to professionals citing the high unemployment caused by the economic shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Indians usually get about 70 per cent of the H1-B visas.

New Delhi and Washington are embroiled in trade disputes and a long-expected trade deal is on hold, while the US has scrapped the General Scheme of Preferences that gave concessional terms for some imports from India worth $6.3 billion. The State Department note kept a studied silence on these topics.

Ahead of the consultations, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the No. 2 in the State Department, visited the Indian Embassy in Washington last week to met with Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu to discuss the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.

(The writer is a New York-based Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS). He can be reached at arullouis@spsindia.in and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)

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