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.