India and the United States have been “too cautious” when it comes to China’s concerns about their strategic ties, said a senior U.S. official, who called China the “Elephant in the room” during bilateral talks.
Speaking at a think-tank event during his visit to Delhi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington respects India’s tradition of “Strategic Autonomy”, and did not seek to pull it into a security alliance, but hoped to build a partnership in the region through the Quad, which he dubbed “Pax Indo-Pacifica”.
“We have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership [between India and the U.S.] — not an alliance on the postwar model, but a fundamental alignment along with shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests and shared values,” Mr. Biegun said at an “India-U.S. Forum” event in Delhi, where he shared a session with Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla.
Mr. Biegun arrived in Delhi for a two-day visit to prepare for the upcoming “2+2” talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Defense Secretary with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Mr. Biegun said the talks will be held “later this year”, although sources indicated that the 2+2 is scheduled for October 26-27.
The arrival of senior U.S. officials including Mr. Biegun less than a month before the US presidential elections is unusual, especially given curtailed travel during the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Pompeo just met for the Quad ministerial dialogue in Tokyo last week. However, the sources suggested that an exception for the U.S. is indicative of the close personal ties shared between the Trump administration and the Modi government.
The ongoing standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is also likely to be a factor in strengthening bilateral arrangements and well coordination in the Indo-Pacific region at this time.
“As we advance in this direction [of the stronger partnership], there is an elephant in the room: China,” Mr. Biegun said, making a specific reference to comments made by former diplomat Ashok Kantha in a recent interview to The Hindu about the need to be less “cautious” about developing the Quad and strategic linkages with the U.S.
“I could not agree more with Ambassador Kantha. We have been too cautious. Last week’s important and successful Quad ministerial leaves the United States confident that perhaps, just maybe, we can say that we are present at the creation of those strategic linkages,” Mr. Biegun added. During the 2+2 meeting, India and the US are expected to discuss further cooperating on their Indo-Pacific strategy, talks on the fourth and last foundational agreement Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial cooperation, as well as a number of defense deals including for armed drones and maritime patrol aircraft from the U.S.
Reacting to the Tokyo meeting and to Mr. Pompeo’s remarks that called for the Quad members to “collaborate” to counter China’s aggression at the LAC and the South China Sea, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had called the Quad a “closed and exclusive clique”. In direct response, Mr. Biegun said the U.S. position was that the Quad did not carry “binding obligations”, and any country seeking a “free and open Indo-Pacific” would be welcome to join. “I should also be clear that the security partnerships the United States and our partners explore today do not necessarily need to follow the model of the last century of mutual defense treaties with a heavy in-country U.S. troop presence,” Mr. Biegun added.