Bolster India’s rise to counter China challenge: Secret US strategy for Indo-Pacific

Published on Jan 13, 2021 10:09 AM IST

Among the “desired end states” of the strategy is India-US cooperation to “preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern”

Representational image. (REUTERS)
Representational image. (REUTERS)

A secret US strategy for the Indo-Pacific framed in 2018 envisaged bolstering India’s capacities so that it could work with other like-minded countries to act as “a counterbalance to China” and maintain the capacity to counter challenges from Beijing such as “border provocations” and access to cross-border rivers.

The strategy, framed more than two years before the India-China military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), makes more than 20 mentions of India and sees the country as “preeminent in South Asia” and taking on “the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security” while increasing engagement with Southeast Asia and expanding economic and defence cooperation with other US allies and partners.

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On the other hand, the document, classified “secret” and “not for foreign nationals”, sees China as a strategic competitor to the US intent on dissolving American alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and circumventing “international rules and norms to gain an advantage”. It also states China will use its dominance in cutting edge technologies to “pose profound challenges to free societies”.

Under the US system, such documents usually remain secret for up to three decades but the Trump administration’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien declassified the 10-page strategy with slight redactions on January 5. Experts believe this was done to signal continuity of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy to key partners such as India, Australia and Japan amid the change in administration in Washington.

The strategy is based on the assumption that a “strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China”, and that New Delhi’s “preferred partner on security issues” is Washington.

Among the “desired end states” or goals of the strategy is India-US cooperation to “preserve maritime security and counter Chinese influence in South and Southeast Asia and other regions of mutual concern”, and India maintaining “the capacity to counter border provocations by China”.

The strategy also sets the goal of ensuring that India remains “preeminent in South Asia and takes the leading role in maintaining Indian Ocean security, increases engagement with Southeast Asia, and expands its economic, defense, and diplomatic cooperation with other US allies and partners in the region”.

The strategy states that the US will take action on several fronts, including diplomatic, military and intelligence, to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and Major Defense Partner” and to address challenges emanating from China, including the border dispute.

Among the actions the US will take in this regard is offering “support to India – through diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels – to help address continental challenges such as the border dispute with China and access to water, including the Brahmaputra and other rivers facing diversion by China”.

The US will also “solidify an enduring strategic partnership with India underpinned by a strong Indian military able to effectively collaborate with the United States and our partners in the region to address shared interests”.

According to the document, the US will build a “stronger foundation for defense cooperation and interoperability; expand our defense trade and ability to transfer defense technology to enhance India’s status as a Major Defense Partner; increase our cooperation on shared regional security concerns and encourage India’s engagement beyond the Indian Ocean Region”.

The US will also support India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, and work “with India toward domestic economic reform and an increased leadership role in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ADMM+ (Asean Defence Ministers Meeting”

Over the past three years, the US has signed three key defence agreements, one at each of the 2+2 ministerial meetings, to facilitate the real-time sharing of sensitive military information and transfer of sophisticated technology. These agreements are the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), the Industrial Security Annex to the General Security of Military Information Agreement, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

In a recent farewell address, outgoing US ambassador Kenneth Juster had specifically referred to these agreements and said concluding them had elevated the bilateral defence partnership.

During the same event, Juster had said the US was “very supportive” amid the India-China border standoff but declined to go into details. “We both share a vision of the Indo-Pacific region...and that is an inclusive vision that provides opportunities for all countries to grow and prosper but also wants to avoid incursions of any type, intimidations and predatory financing, and when there’s a situation that is along those lines, we cooperate to try to resist it,” he had said.

The four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad – India, Australia, Japan and the US – elevated the body to the ministerial level in 2019 and the second ministerial meeting was held in Tokyo last year. Ahead of that meeting, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had spoken about plans to formalise the Quad.

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