NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are in India to drive the Trump administration’s anti-China message exactly a week ahead of America’s presidential election.
With President Donald Trump in a tight race for a second term against former Vice President Joe Biden, Pompeo and Esper are seeking to play on Indian suspicions about China to shore up a regional front against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
In talks on Tuesday (Oct 27) with their Indian counterparts, Pompeo and Esper are to sign an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing and highlight strategic cooperation between Washington and New Delhi with an eye toward countering China.
Just hours before the meetings began, the Trump administration notified Congress of plans for a US$2.37 billion sale of Harpoon missile systems to Taiwan – the second major arms sale in two weeks to the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province. China reacted to the first sale by announcing sanctions on US defence contractors.
Shortly before the Harpoon sale was announced, Pompeo met late on Monday India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to laud “the strong partnership between the United States and India” declaring it to be “critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world,” the State Department said in a statement.
Regardless of domestic US election considerations, it is a critical time in the US-India relationship as China looms large over the Indo-Pacific.
Heightened border tensions between New Delhi and Beijing have only added to Chinese-American animosity that has been fuelled by disputes over the coronavirus, trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, human rights and disputes between China and its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, India is looking to emerge from a shell of internal issues, including unrest in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, as it faces twin threats from China and Pakistan.
Tuesday’s meetings come during a flareup of military tensions between India and China in a disputed mountainous region where tens of thousands of soldiers have been engaged in a standoff since May. Trump has offered to help defuse tensions but has yet to receive any indication of interest from either side.
India and China fought a month-long war over the region at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1962 and some fear a similar confrontation before this winter sets in.
Pompeo has made no secret of the Trump administration’s desire to see India help in the US bid to isolate China. Since Trump became president, the US and India have steadily ramped up their military relationship.
When Trump visited India in February, the two sides concluded defence deals worth over US$3 billion. Bilateral defence trade has increased from near zero in 2008 to US$15 billion in 2019.
The talks in New Delhi on Tuesday follow a meeting that Pompeo had earlier this month in Tokyo with his counterparts from India, Japan and Australia, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as “the Quad.” The Quad is seen as a counterweight to China, who critics say is flexing its military muscle throughout the region.
Pompeo will head back to Washington by way of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia during which he plans to press each nation to push back Chinese assertiveness. He’s also expected to raise human rights issues at each stop.