Simple arithmetic

| Updated on October 28, 2020

(From left) US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar   -  AFP

The 2+2 meeting between the US and India is significant in more ways than one

The China factor may not have been mentioned by name in the final statement, but it was the proverbial elephant in the room during high-level talks between India and the US on Tuesday. There wasn’t the slightest doubt why the two sides met in person barely a week before the US presidential election. While India held back on open references, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T Esper had no such qualms in slamming China and its hostile actions in Ladakh and what they called its “hegemonistic intentions” all around Asia. Pompeo even laid a wreath at the National War Memorial and talked about the 20 Indian soldiers killed in the Galwan Valley clash. And then he headed to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia to deliver a warning about China’s growing economic and military power. When asked about his visits, Pompeo said: “India's neighbourhood needs a bit of balancing. This is not the first time I’ve been to this region and won’t be the last.”

Was this a historic moment in India-US ties? Certainly, it was an extremely significant one. The inking of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on Tuesday means all four agreements required for security cooperation between the two countries have been signed. The timeline of these agreements — the first was signed in 2002, the second in 2016 and the third in 2018 — shows how hesitantly once-non-aligned India has moved into the US embrace. India also reluctantly signed the End Use Monitoring Agreement in 2009. BECA allows for sharing of high-end military technology, satellite data and other critical information. Whatever hesitations India may have had about entering the US orbit seem to have been erased in the wake of the Ladakh standoff; India has been forced to accept that it will need a powerful ally to deal with a hostile neighbour with a $179-billion defence budget, almost triple its $69 billion. Equally, the US needs India to create a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. That is one reason why there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks such as the Quad meeting in Tokyo between India, the US, Japan and Australia. Also, India last week invited Australia to join the November Malabar naval exercises. One Chinese analyst has dubbed the Malabar exercises as “an obvious step to create a mini-version of Nato in Asia” and warned that Beijing would be forced to take counter-measures which might escalate military confrontation chances.

The clear question hanging over the meeting was what will happen if, as now seems likely, voters turf out Donald Trump in the US presidential elections. Still, it looks almost certain that even if Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins, there’ll be no fundamental change in the US approach to China. India, with its 3,500-km border with China, must obviously tread cautiously but it needs also to recognise that its neighbour is becoming ever more powerful and peace can only be maintained by assiduously building up our own strength.

Published on October 28, 2020

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