China has been keeping a close eye on the 2+2 dialogue, for, according to Chinese scholars, there has been a definite ‘China focus’ to the dialogue.
With the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) on 27 October 2020, India and the United States has concluded all four-foundational agreements to bolster military to military cooperation. It took India 18 years to ink these agreements, for the first, General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was concluded in 2002, followed by the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, and the Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA) in 2018. The agreements pave way for intelligence sharing, greater technological cooperation in military areas, interoperability of armed forces, accessing each other’s military facilities, transfer of specialised equipment for weapon systems such as C-17, C-130 and P-8Is, and finally exchanging geospatial information for precision strike capabilities, among other things. The two sides also signed the Maritime Information Sharing Technical Arrangement (MISTA) for enhancing cooperation between the Indian and the US Navies. The signing of these agreements is of strategic importance in the face of China’s aggression along India’s northern borders.
This is the third India-US 2+2 ministerial dialogue. The first two were held in 2018 (New Delhi) and 2019 (Washington), respectively. It replaced the earlier India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue that elevated the erstwhile India-US strategic dialogue in 2015. The new ministerial dialogue involving Foreign and Defence Ministers/Secretaries of both sides is aimed at enhancing strategic coordination and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The first dialogue was unilaterally postponed twice in April and July 2018 by the US owing to “unavoidable reasons”. Chinese scholarship on India at that time speculated that the real reason behind the US decision was India’s oil and arms imports from Iran and Russia, respectively. They had also cited Donald Trump’s displeasure with India, and India imposing up to 100% tariffs on imports from the United States in retaliation to the US tariffs. Long Xingchun, a senior researcher at the Chahar Institute had opined that “there was a long-standing deep rooted mistrust between India and the US. On the one hand, the US is wielding the stick of ‘protectionism’ against India, and on the other, by unfolding its ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’, the US wants India to make a choice between China and the US. Given the choice, China was more ‘reliable’.”
China has been keeping a close eye on the proceedings of the 2+2 dialogue, for, like the preceding dialogues, according to Chinese scholars, there has been a definite “China focus” to the dialogue. They have pronounced India as a defence “ally” or a “de facto ally” of the US. Wang Shida of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations holds such views and argues that India’s “non-alignment” has evolved into a policy of “multi-faceted alliance” that envisages cooperation or conflict with different countries on varied issues. Zhao Gancheng, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, posits that the “United States has always wanted to draw India into the circle of its non-NATO allies. Now, both have forged increasingly closer defence cooperation, it can be said that the timetable for materialising a military alliance has been accelerated.” Lin Minwang, deputy director of the Centre for South Asian Studies of Fudan University, asserts that “having completed the process of signing these foundational agreements, India has officially become the US’s defence ‘ally’,” implying that “India has firmly tied its defence and security to the ‘chariot’ of the United States”. He also holds that the United States is more “enthusiastic” than a “hesitant” India for such a cooperation: “On the one hand, India can indeed get assistance from the United States for enhancing its capabilities including the missile precision; however, on the other hand, the control of Indian defence systems is likely to slip into US hands, thus losing its strategic autonomy. Nonetheless, if the two sides have announced the conclusion of the agreement, it demonstrates that India has made up its mind.”
Some analysts believe that since Trump is finding it hard to garner support through raking up domestic issues, therefore, he has dispatched his “confidants” to the “Indo-Pacific” so as to enlist the last-minute support for his candidacy. However, Yuan Zheng, deputy director of the American Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argues that to link the 2+2 dialogue with the US presidential election is a bit far-fetched. They also argue that through defence cooperation with the US, Narendra Modi too is releasing some of the pressures emanating from economic recession and the pandemic in India. In the words of Lin Minwang, the pandemic and border standoff have provided “justification for ‘strategic convergence’ between India and the United States”. Lin calls it India’s “strategic gamble” and a “high-risk” strategic path, showing a high degree of opportunism and pragmatism. He holds that stronger India-US defence partnership will “inevitably bear the price of weakening India-Russia and India-Iran relations”.
It could be discerned that the kind of understanding and equilibrium that was established between India and China after the restoration of diplomatic relations in the late 1970s was on the premise that both were developing countries at an equal stage of economic development, therefore, both must exploit their economic potentials and complementarities and put aside contentious issues like border, Tibet and others. The notion that there was enough space for both to develop simultaneously was the buzzword, which lasted until China became the second largest economy of the world in 2010. However, in the wake of four decades of reforms, while China narrowed its asymmetries with the US, India’s economic and defence asymmetries with China grew wider. This resulted in China believing that it has emerged as the sole challenger to the established hegemon, with the balance of power tilting highly in its favour in Asia, hence, it no longer deems it important to adhere to the understanding of yesteryears with India, least to talk about power sharing and looking at India as another pole in Asia. Although China still harps about multipolarity, if it cannot accept a multipolar Asia, the talk of multi-polarity becomes pointless. The Narendra Modi government shedding the ambivalence of a Congress-led regime and going ahead to conclude all foundational agreements could also be seen in this light.
It is perhaps from this thinking that Chinese scholars such as Zhang Guihong of the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University believe that “India is the best choice for the US to balance China”. The scholar also argues that China on the one hand needs to strengthen its economic engagement with India, while on the other allay India’s security concerns as regards the Kashmir issue, China’s relations with Pakistan and other smaller states in South Asia. Doklam, abolition of Article 370, and especially the Galwan military standoff that is in its sixth month now, demonstrate that China has cared little for India’s sensitivities, so much so China has questioned Ladakh being part of India. In such a situation, China wanting India to address its security concerns as regards Tibet, Taiwan, East Turkistan, South China Sea etc., issues would be unrealistic, albeit there remain risks. Even though many in China look at India gradually becoming a front state of the US for China’s containment, but India believes that there is no room for a third party to get involved in its bilateral issues. Conversely, India’s political and strategic community has increasingly come to believe that it is China which is containing India and undermining her regional and global aspirations through its pivot to Asia.
B.R. Deepak is Professor at the Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.