Relationship with India important, monitoring LAC very closely: US defense secretary
At a time when China is engaging in “systematic rule-breaking” and coercion, the US sees its growing security cooperation with India as “one of the all important defence relationships of the 21st century”, US defence secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday.
The exercise in the Indian Ocean between Indian Navy warships and a US Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Nimitz reflects the shared commitment of the two countries to boost naval cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific, he said.
Delivering a speech on the US strategy and vision for security in the Indo-Pacific during a virtual event organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Esper didn’t directly refer to the India-China border standoff but made numerous references to what he described as rule-breaking and coercive behaviour by Beijing, especially in South China Sea and against members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
He made a special mention of burgeoning India-US security ties, which in recent years have expanded to the 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers and big ticket deals for defence hardware, including aircraft and missile systems.
“I want to highlight our increased defence cooperation with India, one of the all important defence relationships of the 21st century,” he said.
“We conducted the first ever joint military exercise last November and as we speak today, the USS Nimitz is conducting combined exercises with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean, demonstrating our shared commitment to stronger naval cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Esper added: “We also continue to grow our defence sales and look forward to a robust 2+2 ministerial dialogue later this year to build on this progress.”
On the other hand, China has continued to engage in “systematic rule-breaking, coercion and other malign activities” amid the Covid-19 crisis, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has engaged in “aggressive behaviour” in the East and South China Seas, including sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas development, and escorting Chinese fishing vessels into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, he said.
Asked about the India-China standoff during the question-and-answer session after his speech, Esper said the US is “monitoring it very closely and what’s happening along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”. He said the US was “very pleased to see that both sides are trying to de-escalate the situation”.
In response to a separate question, Esper said the exercise between the Indian Navy and the carrier strike group led by USS Nimitz “shows the growing cooperation between our countries and our ability to project power into the region and to sustain it with our allies and partners”.
The US, he noted, is encouraging Indo-Pacific nations to expand intra-regional security relationships and networks of like-minded partners. In this regard, he pointed to the logistical support agreement finalised by India and Australia in June.
Esper also referred to what he said was China’s “catalogue of bad behaviour” that accompanies a pattern of disregard for international commitments, failure to uphold commitments under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and disregard for the rights of other countries under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China, he added, had bullied Asean nations out of an estimated $2.6 trillion in potential offshore oil and gas revenues and cut off access to important fishing grounds even as it made incursions into waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands and looked the other way as North Korea violated UN Security Council resolutions related to its nuclear programme.
“We call on China’s leaders to abide by the international laws and norms that China and the Chinese people have benefited greatly from over the years. While we hope the [China] will change its ways, we must be prepared for the alternative,” he said.