Flashpoints

Esper, Pompeo drive US anti-China message in India visit

NEW DELHI — Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped up the Trump administration’s anti-China message in India on Tuesday.

Esper and Pompeo sought to play on Indian suspicions about China to shore up a regional front against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. They also lauded joint cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

In talks with their Indian counterparts, Esper and Pompeo signed an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing and highlighted strategic cooperation between Washington and New Delhi with an eye toward countering China. The two men paid tribute to Indian troops killed in defense of their country, including 20 who died earlier this year in an incident with China.

“The United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their freedom and sovereignty.” Pompeo said, referring pointedly to ones posed by the Chinese Communist Party,

“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP is no friend to democracy, the rule of law, transparency, nor to freedom of navigation — the foundation of a free and open and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” he said.

U.S. Marines take positions during an amphibious landing operation with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force at the Dawn Blitz 2015 exercise at Camp Pendleton, California, in September 2015. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
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Esper said the two countries' focus must now “be on institutionalizing and regularizing our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future.” That, he said, is particularly important “in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing actions by China.”

Just hours before the meetings began, the Trump administration notified Congress of plans for a $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 U.S. defense contractors.

Shortly before the Harpoon sale was announced, Pompeo met late Monday with Indian 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.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrive to pay their tributes at the National War Memorial in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Adnan Abidi/Pool via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper arrive to pay their tributes at the National War Memorial in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Adnan Abidi/Pool via AP)

Regardless of domestic U.S. election considerations, it is a critical time in the U.S.-India relationship as China looms large over the Indo-Pacific.

Heightened border tensions between New Delhi and Beijing have added to Chinese-American animosity that has been fueled by disputes over the coronavirus, trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, human rights and disputes between China and its smaller neighbors 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. President Donald Trump has offered to help defuse tensions but has yet to receive any indication of interest from either side. India and China fought a monthlong war over the region at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, and some fear a similar confrontation before this winter sets in.

Pompeo has made no secret of the Trump administration’s desire for India’s help in the U.S. bid to isolate China. Since Trump became president, the U.S. and India have steadily ramped up their military relationship. When Trump visited India in February, the two sides concluded defense deals worth over $3 billion. Bilateral defense trade has increased from near zero in 2008 to $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, which critics say is flexing its military muscle throughout the region.

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