Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz
by Patrick Mendis and Antonina Luszczykiewicz

What the timing of the US-India defence deal reveals

  • Not only was the signing of the US-India defence pact important, the visit by America’s top two national security officials came just a week before the presidential election
  • This signals a longer-term shift in US policy towards both India and China
This week, two top US national security officials – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper – made a trip to New Delhi where they met India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The timing of the meeting has raised questions about its significance, given the ongoing tensions on the India-China border.

 The visit took place a week before the US presidential election and leaves no doubt about the importance of US engagement with India at a time when the world’s most powerful democracy and its largest one are both 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 meeting in the US-India 2+2 ministerial dialogue. The two countries cemented military ties by signing the last of four foundational accords, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, under which they will share geospatial intelligence.

India, the US, Australia and Japan are members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said aimed to build an “Indo-Pacific Nato” in a strategy that emphasises “the Cold War mentality”. In 2018, however, Wang had dismissed the Quad and the US push to describe the region as the Indo-Pacific instead of the Asia-Pacific as a “attention-grabbing idea” that would “dissipate like ocean foam”.

Today, the Nato-like Indo-Pacific alliance has been firming up, triggered by the recent Sino-Indian border conflict.


China, India accuse each other of firing shots in tense border region

China, India accuse each other of firing shots in tense border region
The June clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the northwestern Himalayan region resulted in the first recorded casualties since 1975. India retaliated by banning over 100 Chinese apps, such as WeChat and TikTok. India is an important international market for Chinese apps; it was TikTok’s largest market.

By doing so, New Delhi went against the 1988 breakthrough, after which economic and cultural relations between India and China were to be developed, irrespective of the ongoing border dispute.

It is an open secret that India and the US have, in recent years, been consistently tightening the cooperation that began with the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008. The newly signed defence pact will allow the two Quad partners to share satellite and mapping data, enhancing the accuracy of missiles and drones, and allowing for better surveillance of adversaries.

It is no surprise that the US-India alliance is aimed mainly at counterbalancing China’s influence. 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 any more, but an enemy of the US.

US Secretary for Defence Mark Esper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar attend a news conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on October 26. Photo: Bloomberg
Aside from the significance of the agreement, questions remain about its timing. Why did US President Donald Trump send his top national security officials to India right before the election, when the possibility of him losing the presidency is high? Why didn’t India follow a “wait-and-watch” strategy until the election results clarified the US situation?

The timing of Pompeo’s visit suggests it is part of a long-term strategy vis-à-vis both China and India, one that will continue regardless of who occupies the White House. It is clear that the US trade war with China is irreversible, although it may take different forms.

Initiatives such as Quad confirm that the US intends to counterbalance – or even isolate China – not just economically but also in the political and military domains.

Is the Quad on track to take on Beijing?

From the perspective of domestic US politics, Pompeo’s visit to India was yet another occasion to use the “China threat” and anti-China sentiment in the presidential campaign to galvanise the Republican voter base. Trump has been trying to mobilise his supporters by accusing China of spreading the coronavirus and presenting the country as an economic bandit, deflecting from his own handling of the pandemic.
The deal’s potential to boost the Indian-American community’s support for Trump cannot be underestimated, either. However, some Indian-Americans might find Joe Biden more attractive, given that his vice-presidential pick, Senator Kamala Harris, is of Indian heritage.
US President Donald Trump dances during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 14. Photo: ZUMA Wire/dpa
Nevertheless, no matter who wins the presidential election, he will most certainly welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s iconic bear hug, his diplomatic tool of choice.

By accelerating military cooperation with the US, India has finally removed the mask of non-aligned foreign policy that it has nominally employed since 1947. During the Cold War, non-alignment was supposed to allow India to manoeuvre between the US and the former Soviet Union.

Today, increased border tensions and China’s attempt to interfere in India’s internal affairs – issues both Indian officials and public opinion have always been sensitive about – make it impossible to keep the facade of neutrality.

In their statements, neither Jaishankar nor Singh called a spade a spade, but the Indian government’s anti-Chinese motivations cannot be doubted. India now seems ready to secure its Himalayan borders through an international military alliance for the first time in its post-independence history.

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 currently serve as Taiwan fellows of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Republic of China