By Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz –
The simultaneous visit by President Donald Trump’s two top national security officials to India raises the crucial triple “W” questions of when and who participated in the bilateral talks—and most importantly for what reasons.
Before arriving in Sri Lanka, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to New Delhi coincided with India-China border tensions, but one might also ask: why now? The visit took place just a few days ahead of the US presidential election and it leaves no doubts about the importance of American engagement with India when the most powerful and the largest democracies are being challenged by their failure to control the covid-19 pandemic. This was Pompeo’s fourth visit to India as Secretary of State and the third in the US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue as part of the broader Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad).
The significance of his latest trip is that Pompeo was accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper to meet with their counterparts: Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh of India. As members of the Quad with Australia and Japan, the US and India now signed the last of four foundational accords – Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) – for geospatial and intelligence cooperation to cement their bilateral military ties.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi characterized the goal of Quad is to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO” in a strategy to harken back to the Cold War mentality. In 2018, however, Wang dismissed the Quad and the Indo-Pacific (instead of Asia-Pacific) alliance as a “attention-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like ocean foam.” Despite his political warfare, the evidence suggests the emergence of new NATO-like Indo-Pacific alliance, triggered largely by the recent Sino-Indian border conflict.
No More Long Shadow of Border Disputes
The last June clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the northwestern Himalayan region resulted in the first recorded casualties since 1975. New Delhi retaliated with banning over 100 Chinese apps – such as WeChat and TikTok – for which India was supposed to become the biggest foreign market for Chinese products. By doing so, Indian government went against the 1988 breakthrough, according to which economic and cultural relations between India and China were to be developed irrespectively of the ongoing border dispute.
It is no secret that in recent years India and the US have been working on tightening cooperation. It all began with the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008. The 2020 BECA agreement will allow India and the US to share satellite and mapping data for better accuracy of their missiles and drones—and for better surveillance against adversaries. This accord is the last and concluding part of four military agreements between India and the US that fortify their military cooperation.
Certainly, the US-India alliance is aimed mainly at counterbalancing influences of China. After the 2+2 ministerial dialogue in New Delhi, Pompeo remarked that “we have a lot to discuss today: our cooperation on the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.” From an American perspective, China is not the elephant in the room anymore, but the enemy of the US—pointing openly finger at Beijing.
Regardless of the significance of these agreements, some questions related to the timing remain. Why did President Trump send his top national security officials only a few days ahead of the most important presidential election when there appears a not-so-impossible loss of his presidency in January 2021? Why didn’t India follow the “wait-and-watch” strategy until the US situation gets clarified by the election results?
The geopolitical context of Pompeo’s visit suggests it is the long-term strategy with no return of the US approach to both China and India—and most certainly it will be continued regardless of who occupies the White House. It is clear that the American “trade war” with China – even with different forms – will be inevitable and irreversible. Initiatives such as Quad confirm that the US intends to counterbalance – or even isolate or decouple China – not just in economic but also in political and military domains.
In the prevailing domestic political perspectives, Pompeo’s visit to India was yet another occasion to use the “China threat” rhetoric and anti-Chinese sentiments in the presidential campaign to galvanize their voter base. From accusations of spreading the “Chinese virus” to presenting China as an economic bandit, Trump has been trying to mobilize his supporters while deflecting the pandemic.
The potential of Indo-American community’s support for Trump cannot be underestimated either. However, some Indo-Americans might find voting for former Vice President Joe Biden more attractive thanks to his vice-presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris who has an Indian heritage. Nevertheless, no matter who wins the presidential election, he will most certainly welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s iconic bear-hug, a symbol of his “personal diplomacy” as well as friendly and mutually beneficial nature of bilateral relations.
Leaving the Non-aligned Nonsense Behind
It seems that by accelerating military cooperation with the US, India has finally come to remove the mask of Non-aligned foreign policy it has nominally employed since 1947. In the Cold War reality, it was supposed to allow India to maneuver its relations between the US and the former Soviet Union. However, recent border tensions and China’s increasingly bold attempts of interfering into India’s internal affairs make it impossible for New Delhi to keep the facade of neutrality.
In comparison to American officials, who openly call China an enemy, Indian leaders seem much more restrained. However, although neither Jaishankar nor Singh called a spade a spade, Indian government’s anti-Chinese motivations cannot be doubted. India seems ready to secure its Himalayan borders by an international alliance – the first military alliance aimed at protecting its boundary New Delhi has joined openly in the post-independence history, but the “Asian-NATO” coalition will have far reaching implications for the Indian neighbors, especially for the pro-Chinese Sri Lanka.
*Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor in the NATO and Pacific Commands, is a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University and a senior fellow of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei. Dr. Antonina Luszczykiewicz, a specialist in political and cultural history of China and India, is affiliated with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Both are currently serving as Taiwan fellows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Republic of China.
SJ / November 5, 2020
The NATO clones CENTO and SEATO are rarely remembered since their natural death by the 1960s. That was when the US was a major force of substance and had reliable allies.
Let us see how far this kite will fly.
old codger / November 5, 2020
SEATO had such paragons of democracy as Thailand and Pakistan in its membership.
Dinuk / November 6, 2020
This guy Mendis does not seem to have a clue or care about the environmental and economic costs of War games in the Indian Ocean on impoverished coastal people of the Indian Ocean littoral states and the environmental and socio-economic damage being done by militarization.
Hundreds of Whales beached and died in Sri Lanka due to sonar disturbances in the Ocean because of the on-going Malabar War games of QUAD and the air pollution was predicted to peak in Sri Lanka as the National Building Corporation (NBRO) predicted during the war games due to the environmental damage and carbon emissions.
Also, Sri Lankas Harbours have been put in lock down and fishermen prevented from going to sea so the QUAD war game can continue under the Covid-19 hoax, an outright bio-war attack on the Economy just like the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019 to get Sri Lanka to sign MCC and SOFA to protect Christians from CIA’s IS terrorism!
srikrish / November 5, 2020
US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue is part of the broader Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -the Quad with Japan, Australia, India and USA. Sri Lanka could not be a real partner, but could be only a junior partner.
Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) – for geospatial and intelligence cooperation will seal the multilateral military ties for years to come.
China made a blunder in antagonizing India, India could have been a better, natural partner to India. Had China partnered with India, China would have automatically fallen in line along with their natural ally. Such a powerful bloc would have easily challenged Quad minus India
Lasantha Pethiyagoda / November 5, 2020
We should refer to these geopolitical machinations in simple English. The solutions are also easy, if only the leaders see common sense and not be led by inflated egos. The US has a clear record of the worst aggression against the highest number of countries in modern history. Most of those countries were almost totally destroyed as a result. China on the other hand, a new player in geopolitics, always uses diplomacy and goodwill rather than aggression or state-sponsored terrorism. India has too many internal divisions and lags far behind China even as a regional power. India and China are both Asian. They must unite and forgive each other and open borders for free exchange and trade. They must together reject the US overtures after recognizing their insidious treachery. Australia and the US are like brothers. They will act with racial supremacist ideology against the natives of India and try to deflect China’s rapid ascension. Asia must stand together and protect Asian oceans.
R Kaz / November 6, 2020
India and China are ancient civilisations who first went to war against each other only in the 1960s. That is evidence that they are both not warmongering people. They are also permanent neighbours who should get along with each other which will be beneficial to both instead of letting outside forces influence their relationship. India and China will never be allies as their systems of government are completely different. However, they do not have to be enemies either. By respecting each other and building a non-interference relationship, they can concentrate on the development of their people.
The Modi’s government’s embrace of Trump’s hardline anti-China position has only isolated India in the region. An ‘Asian NATO’ only serves US interests and antagonises China. India is currently struggling with the Covid virus and cannot afford to antagonise China as it will only result in increased defence spending which is exactly the opposite of what India needs at this stage. Hasn’t India learnt any lessons from its colonial days? The US wants India on its side only for its own national interests which includes selling expensive military assets to India. The Modi government should get along with China and look after its own people.
srikrish / November 6, 2020
Yes Mr Kaz,
You are right. China-India friendship should be the bedrock for peace and development in the entire asian region.
Quad could be built up with India, Japan , Australia and China leacving asise USA. Then it will be a natural alliance.
Other powers in Asia could be brought in subsequently for peace and economic development.
For this to happen
• China – India border dispute have to be amicably and peacefully settled.
• The disputes with Vietnam, Philiphines and Indonesia over South China sea.
• The disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East sea also resolved early.