NEW DELHI - India and the United States have signed a landmark agreement to share military information and vowed to ramp up security and strategic ties as top U.S. officials emphasized the need for enhanced cooperation to confront Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
"Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) 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," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in New Delhi. He and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met their Indian counterparts at an annual 2+2 ministerial dialogue on Tuesday.
New Delhi was the first stop of a four-nation Asia tour that Pompeo has said will focus on the "threats" posed by China.
The Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) signed on Tuesday will give India access to topographical and aeronautical data considered vital for targeting missiles and armed drones.
It is the last of four pacts that the two countries have sealed in recent years, setting the ground for significantly bolstering their military partnership.
Both the U.S. and India sounded an upbeat note about their growing partnership. Although Indian officials did not directly refer to China, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called the movement of the relationship with Washington "exceptionally positive," while Esper emphasized their growing cooperation in the region.
"We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing activities by China," he said.
The talks were held as India remains locked in a months-long military standoff with Beijing on its borders and concerns grow in Washington about China flexing its muscle from Hong Kong and the South China Sea to the Himalayas.
Before heading into the talks, the U.S. officials paid tribute to Indian troops at a war memorial, including 20 soldiers 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.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed U.S. accusations about its assertiveness. "We urge him (Pompeo) to abandon the Cold War and the zero-sum game mentality and stop sowing discord between China and regional countries as well as undermining the regional peace and stability," Wang said.
The pact signed between New Delhi and the U.S. on Tuesday has been under negotiation for nearly a decade, but India had been hesitant. "India has been very cautious in the past, but it is now taking a more categorical position," according to Harsh Pant, director of studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "Basically, as China challenges India on its borders, New Delhi is now out in the open about aligning its priorities with the U.S. and like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific."
The talks between the two countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic also focused on cooperation in vaccines that are under development and testing and that are being seen as key measures to control the rampaging infection.
Delayed due to the pandemic, the dialogue was held just one week before the U.S. presidential elections. But analysts point out that there is wide political agreement in both countries about the need to shore up their partnership amid mutual worries about China.
"No one is questioning why this conversation is happening at this time because India is one area where there is perhaps more consensus between the two U.S. presidential candidates than anywhere else," according to Pant. "There is bipartisan support in Washington for strengthening ties with India."
From India, Pompeo travels to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia in a bid to bolster allies in the Indo-Pacific - these are all strategically located countries that Washington hopes can play a role in pressing back against Beijing in the region.
The visit to Sri Lanka, where a government widely seen as pro-China was elected in August, is seen as a pushback against Beijing's influence in the Indian Ocean country that has seen a flood of Chinese investment in the past decade.
Pompeo's Asia tour follows his visit earlier this month to Tokyo for a meeting among the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, a group known as "the Quad" that also aims to be a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region.
In a sign that the "Quad" countries are set to enhance their cooperation, Australia next week is set to join naval exercises that have in the past been held by the U.S., Indian and Japanese navies.