The U.S. and India are set to sign a defense agreement and boost trade ties in high-level talks that come as the South Asian nation sees its worst border conflict with China in four decades.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo arrived in New Delhi on Monday and along with Defense secretary Mark Esper will attend a 2+2 ministerial dialog with foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and defense minister Rajnath Singh to discuss cooperation on pandemic response and challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
The discussions are taking place barely a week before presidential elections in the U.S. and at a time when India, a member of the informal four-nation Quad grouping along with America, Japan and Australia, is in talks to de-escalate military tensions with Beijing.
On Tuesday, India is expected to announce the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, which will give it access to the U.S.’ geo-spatial intelligence inputs to help improve the accuracy of automated hardware systems, missiles and drones, according to senior administration officials.
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The talks are also set to further boost India’s defense purchases from the U.S., currently at $20 billion, and help address its security concerns in the Indian Ocean region as it seeks to compete with China, which has an economy that is about five times larger.
“South Asia and the Indian Ocean is India’s primary strategic theater, and India’s domain of influence,” said Bec Strating, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University. “India is likely to want to maintain its influence in the Indian Ocean and South Asia, manage relations with U.S. and PRC to its advantage, and maintain its own strategic autonomy.”
Pompeo will also travel to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia later in the week as part of the U.S. push to counter Chinese influence in Asia.
His visit will help ensure relations between the two nations “don’t lose momentum” during the transition period until a new administration is sworn in early next year, said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “This is also a way of showing solidarity with India at a time when there is bipartisan support for its conflict with China.”
The U.S. has been increasingly concerned about China expanding its influence in the region through infrastructure and security investments in smaller neighbors.
Beijing committed $126 billion in Central and South Asia between 2000-2017, of which $120 billion was for infrastructure, according to Virginia-based AidData. In comparison, India spent $2.86 billion on aid to six of its neighbors over four years ending 2018, according to figures provided to the nation’s parliament and reported by the Economic Times.
“Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia is a sign that the Indo-Pacific is being elevated as a region,” said Madan, author of the book “Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations during the Cold War.”
Traditionally wary of both Chinese and American influence in its neighborhood, India has become more comfortable with outreach by friendly nations.
The South Asian nation has shown a willingness to build trade and strategic networks with partner nations, lending its support to the U.S.-Maldives defense pact and agreeing to Australia joining the Malabar naval exercises this year despite China’s reservations.
New Delhi is also working with Japan and Australia as the U.S. pushes to build an Economic Prosperity Network to reduce economic dependence on Chinese supply chains in a post-Covid world.
While Beijing is “certainly growing its influence in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, these countries clearly prioritize their relationships with India over China,” said Derek Grossman, Washington-based analyst with the RAND Corporation. The U.S. is working with India to “build a more attractive alternative for these countries to work with in the future.”
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