Pompeo on 4-nation trip as US aims to balance China’s influence in South Asia

By Sarwar Kashani

Srinagar, India, Oct 25 (EFE).- United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is carrying out a week-long four-nation trip to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia as the US seeks stronger security ties to balance the growing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper will accompany Pompeo on the first-leg of the trip, in India, that begins on Monday, a week before the US presidential election.

India-US strategic ties are in for a fillip during the third 2+2 ministerial talks between Esper and Pompeo and their respective Indian counterparts, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh, in the backdrop of mutual tensions with China.

The two sides may sign a satellite data-sharing pact, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), on geospatial ties.

“We are in the process of finalizing a lot of the discussions right now, and so I know that BECA and other agreements are in the works,” David R. Stilwell, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Department of State, told reporters ahead of the trip.

The agreement will let India use US geospatial intelligence data for better accuracy of missiles, drones, and automated military hardware systems.

It is one of the four foundational agreements that a country needs to sign to be a “Major Defense Partner” of the US.

The other three, which India has already joined, are about sharing military communications, intelligence, and logistical arrangements for inter-operability.

The US has also inked these pacts, usually limited to NATO allies, with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.

Washington is looking up to New Delhi and the three major powers in the Indo-Pacific to contain the alleged Chinese military expansionist aims in a region that lies in India’s backyard, threatening sea trade on the critical maritime line.

India has long hesitated in aligning with any US-led security coalition that might anger China.

However, military tensions between China and India rose dramatically earlier this year near the disputed Himalayan border in the Ladakh sector, where Chinese soldiers killed 20 Indian troops in June.

The annual India-US ministerial-level strategic talks assume greater significance against the backdrop of the tensions in Ladakh and the Indo-Pacific region.

“I am not sure China will pay all that much close attention to the trip,” Michael Kugelman, from the non-partisan Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, told EFE.

“But Beijing will see it for what it is – another indication of a deepening partnership between Washington and New Delhi that is driven in great part by shared concern about China’s increasing clout and problematic behavior in the Indo-Pacific,” said Kugelman, who looks after the South Asia chapter of the Woodrow Wilson center’s Asia program.

NC Bipindra, a New Delhi-based military and strategic affairs analyst, said the US and India would be sending out a message of their common interests in the Indo-Pacific region for a rules-based order, “which is a euphemism for joint tackling of an aggressive communist China.”

Bipindra, editor of news portal Defence.Capital, said the alleged border aggression by China “has only encouraged India to shed its earlier policy of (staying) equidistant from the US and China that are fighting for the top slot in the emerging world order.”

“India has placed its bets on the side of democracies in general,” Bipindra told EFE, referring to the quad grouping of India, the US, Australia, and Japan.

The quad has already emerged into a sort of a security bloc, with the four nations set to take part in a naval exercise next month in the Indian Ocean region.

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