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US-China tensions

US and India seek strategic partnership regardless of Trump, Biden

World's largest and oldest democracies commit to closer defense ties

Indian soldiers disembark from an American-made military transport plane at a forward airbase Sept. 15 in Leh, in the Ladakh region.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Even as the U.S. heads into a heated election -- where a defeat may place President Donald Trump and his administration in a "lame duck" transitionary period before handing over power to opponent Joe Biden -- the State and Defense departments are going full steam ahead with their diplomatic efforts, locking down international agreements for securing the Indo-Pacific and countering China.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in New Delhi to meet with Indian counterparts Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh ahead of Tuesday's joint "two plus two" meeting -- the third joint U.S.-India Ministerial Dialogue in just over two years -- where India is expected to sign a military agreement with the U.S. for sharing of sensitive satellite data, according to Reuters.

Before their departure, Pompeo and Esper both tweeted their desire to strengthen alliances in the Indo-Pacific, a region of vital importance owing to sea lanes like the Strait of Malacca and where tensions have been increasing because of China's rising presence.

"Wheels up for my trip to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia," Pompeo tweeted Sunday. "Grateful for the opportunity to connect with our partners to promote a shared vision for a free and open #IndoPacific composed of independent, strong, and prosperous nations."

Esper had tweeted a similar agenda Saturday: "In the #IndoPacific, the US is strengthening alliances and partnerships by deepening interoperability, expanding deterrent networks, and executing maritime security and awareness operations that reinforce a rules-based international order."

The trip by two of the most senior cabinet officials in the Trump administration, just a week before the Nov. 3 election, is unconventional.

But Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Nikkei Asia that by pursuing these activities so close to the election, American officials are trying to send an important message: "This is a relationship with bipartisan support, and we're not going to let partisan events like an election get in the way of it."

Retired Rear Adm. Sudarshan Shrikhande, former head of Indian Naval Intelligence, agreed.

"Since we are two democracies, the strategic relationship has to be beyond whichever dispensation would be in power in either nation," he said. "The nuances and contours may change, but the foundation has to be deeper to hold the superstructure."

And if Biden enters the White House?

"If there is a Biden administration, it would pick up right where its predecessor left off," Kugelman said. "These U.S. concerns about terrorism and China's activities are bipartisan, and they'll continue to drive U.S. policy toward India no matter who wins the election."

India, meanwhile, has been careful about not entering into an official military alliance with the U.S., despite overtures from Washington. During the Cold War, it adhered to a foreign policy of nonalignment. More recently, it has preferred to use the term "strategic autonomy."

Tuesday's expected signing of a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation, therefore, is seen as a "game changer" for intelligence-sharing, according to a person familiar with the proceedings.

"In the context of the Indian military's current standoff with China in [the Himalayan region of] Ladakh, where assessing the movement and size of People's Liberation Army's positions is critical, this is a very important new tool India is getting," the source said.

New Delhi had been skeptical about such arrangements for years.

"The chief concern that critics [in India] express is that the agreements [with the U.S.] imperil India's long-held foreign policy of strategic autonomy (for example, by paving the way for U.S. bases or ports in Indian territories, or unduly binding India to U.S. systems and procedures)," said a 2017 assessment by Virginia-based nonprofit CNA Analysis & Solutions.

However, the recent escalation in tensions with China, which resulted in a bloody military standoff this past summer, may have forced New Delhi to reconsider its options.

"Let's be clear: For all the rhetoric about shared values, it's cold, hard interests that bind Washington and New Delhi together," the Wilson Center's Kugelman said. "It's concern about terrorism and the clout of China that have fueled the relationship's growth. These shared interests help explain the remarkable transformation the relationship has enjoyed over the last two decades."

This transformation is best showcased in the U.S.-India arms trade. The State Department notes "the increase in total defense trade with India from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020." And American-made platforms, such as the C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, have been crucial in New Delhi's effort to face China in the heights of the western Himalayas.

"A defense hardware relationship does impact on strategic convergence to an extent," Shrikhande said.

"But, in my view, this ought not be a driver in a measure of a relationship," he said. "Washington has sold much more to several countries over decades and got uneven strategic leverage because of such sales. China is a problem that drives recent stepping up, and China needs counterbalancing. This relationship ought to think about that objective."

"Certainly, the Ladakh crisis, by subjecting India to deadly violence with China, has reinforced for New Delhi how like-minded India and the U.S. are about the threat posed by Beijing," Kugelman said. "The border spat has delivered one more fillip to a partnership already in a good place. But there's still much work to be done. And a big reason why is that India has not indicated a desire to jettison its policy of strategic autonomy."

That "strategic autonomy" is why India has held back, if not directly filibustered, Washington's attempts to bolster the Quad -- the strategic forum between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. However, New Delhi's recent formal invitation to Canberra to join the India-led Malabar naval drills in the Indian Ocean region practically endorses what Pompeo has been pushing for: "institutionalizing" the Quad "to build out a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us," as he said in an exclusive interview in early October.

But Shrikhande insisted: "Alignment is more important, not necessarily alliances. The U.S. and USSR relationship in the Second World War turned into a short-lived alliance that in most ways wasn't. There is much that two large and powerful democracies ought to be doing together even without a formal alliance. India has shed the nonalignment cloak some time back. The Quad is one more significant outcome of that."

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