US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
and Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s visits for the third 2+2 dialogue
for bilateral defence cooperation present both opportunities and risks for India. For India, the meeting takes place against the backdrop of the five-month stand-off with the Chinese military along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. For the US, the meetings signal the gathering momentum of a strategic US-led anti-Chinese partnership in Asia. It is almost certain that the deal would not have happened without the Chinese threat becoming real for India after the Doklam and Ladakh crisis. Mr Pompeo, whose itinerary includes the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, has made no secret that his government is exploring ways to counter “threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party”. This meeting will be consequential in the continuum of closer Indo-US relations starting with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership to the Indo-US nuclear deal. The big agenda item is signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of four “foundational” agreements that presage deeper defence ties. BECA would allow the Indian military to access the US’s topographical, nautical, and aeronautical data and, most significantly, admit India to a select group of long-range missile powers, thanks to access to the US department of defence’s satellite networks.
But the reality is that these talks take place a week before the presidential election, the outcome of which could alter the relations for both nations. Though it is now recognised that Sino-American tensions will remain the global paradigm regardless of which administration is in the White House, India’s significance as an ally will depend on the dynamics of that relationship. If Donald Trump retains the White House, continuing tensions with China will ensure that India remains a significant ally. The fact that Mr Pompeo reiterated US support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and the US willingness to exclude Chabahar, the Indo-Iranian joint-venture port, from sanctions underline India’s value for the Trump administration. A Joe Biden victory, funded by big business, can be expected to de-escalate trade tensions with China and, from India’s point view, ease the constraints Mr Trump imposed on the H1B regime. But Mr Biden is also likely to revive Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr Trump had repudiated, developments that would tilt the alignment away from India. Though Mr Biden has referred to India as a “friend”, Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s somewhat unsubtle electioneering for Mr Trump in the US is unlikely to endear him to a Democrat administration.
A reversal of Mr Trump’s withdrawal of Generalised System of Preferences for India can by no means be taken for granted. The unpredictability of a superpower alliance, therefore, makes it imperative that India looks beyond it by strengthening its own regional footprint. The decision to invite Australia to the Malabar exercise under the Quad grouping in November will usefully secure the Indian Ocean/Indo-Pacific sphere. India’s decision to host the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s council of heads of government summit in November is also an astute demonstration of diplomatic maturity in the face of Chinese aggression. Ties with Nepal, however, have steadily deteriorated under the Modi government, some of the earlier bonhomie with Sri Lanka has dissipated because India has delayed Colombo’s requests for debt relief, and tensions with Bangladesh are simmering over the Citizenship Amendment Act. Nor has India been able to leverage close ties with the US to pressure Pakistan to withdraw its support for terrorist groups. Realpolitik demands that India needs to look to its neighbours too.