Coming at a sensitive time with the US Presidential election just a week away and while India is still entangled in border tensions with China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and secretary of defense Mark Esper arrived in New Delhi on Monday for the Indo-US 2+2 talks, expected to focus on the Indo-Pacific security and the threat posed by China.
Pompeo’s pit stops in Asia include Indian-Ocean nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and Indonesia, which is in a dispute with China in the South China Sea. Also, next month India hosts the Malabar naval exercise, which would see the forces of all Quad nations — US, India, Japan and Australia — participate for the first time in 13 years.
Security cooperation between India and the US would be on the agenda too. The two countries have made significant progress towards concluding the last foundational defence cooperation agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, the Times of India reports. The agreement will allow for expanded geospatial information sharing between the armed forces of the two countries.
The upcoming presidential election in the US is not expected to cast a shadow over the talks since both the Democrats and Republicans emphasise close relations with India. Some even argue Donald Trump’s challenger Joe Biden would be better for India. (Related news: Biden slammed Trump for his “filthy” air comment on India)
Pompeo could assuage India’s concerns over the new sanctions on Iran affecting New Delhi’s interest, specifically the Chabahar port. The Trump administration has informed New Delhi that sale of agricultural commodities, food, medicine and medical devices to Iran, is permitted, the Indian Express reports. Waivers granted for reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, too, remain valid. This holds significance as India sees Chabahar — despite the slow progress — as a reliable gateway to Afghanistan.
Despite a firestorm of positive signals fired off by officials from both sides in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere before this year’s ministerial meeting, such as the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), Chinese observers pointed out that even upgraded military cooperation with the US will not put India on the same level to confront China, nor will it change the fact that Washington and New Delhi always have their own interests at heart. It will not determine how long the India-US honeymoon will last.
It is significant that during Prime Minister Modi and President Obama’s final meeting in the White House in 2016, the United States elevates India to a major defense partner, a status no other country holds. An expansion of the ten-year defense agreement renewed in 2015, the designation, which became law in August 2018, means that India will enjoy some of the benefits of being a U.S. treaty ally, such as access to defense technology, though the alliance is not a formal one. In a speech before Congress a day later, Modi celebrated his country’s growing diplomatic and economic ties with the United States. Two months later, the United States and India signed an agreement on deeper military cooperation after nearly a decade of negotiations.
In 2018, during a “two-plus-two” dialogue in New Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sign an agreement with Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) gives India access to advanced communication technology used in U.S. defense equipment and allows real-time information sharing between the two countries’ militaries. The agreement had been under negotiation for nearly a decade.