South Asia and Beyond

‘India Not An Ally But Most Important Bilateral Relationship For U.S.’

 ‘India Not An Ally But Most Important Bilateral Relationship For U.S.’

Kurt Campbell (right), Deputy Assistant to U.S. President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, in conversation with Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. (Photo: CNAS)

NEW DELHI: “The most important bilateral relationship for the United States into the 21st century for me is with India, and I believe we are destined to work more closely together,” believes Kurt Campbell, Deputy Assistant to U.S. President Joe Biden and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs.

In a fireside chat with Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer of the Washington DC-based Center for a New American Security (CNAS), an independent, bipartisan, non-profit strategic thinktank, Campbell dwelt on the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the road ahead.

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CNAS has released a report titled India-China Border Tensions and U.S. Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which, after noting that the border standoff between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants has strategic implications for the United States and its Indo-Pacific strategy, went on to recommend several steps the Biden administration should take to help India meet the Chinese challenge.

“For its part, India does not seek direct U.S. involvement in the India-China border dispute or any crisis that may arise there, but it is likely confident that it can count on the United States for some forms of support if requested,” the report said.

However, the “United States responded to the 2020 border clash between the Indian Army and the PLA at Galwan River Valley in Ladakh by “extending full diplomatic and material support for India.” This included “information and intelligence and expedited delivery of equipment, including two MQ-9B surveillance drones and specialized gear for extreme cold weather conditions,” it said.

It then went on to recommend, among other things, that the US should: 

  • Elevate Indian territorial disputes with China on par with Beijing’s assertiveness against other U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and ensure this is reflected in all national security-related documents and speeches.
  • Offer India the sophisticated military technology it requires to defend its borders and initiate coproduction and codevelopment of military equipment.
  • Assist India in strengthening its maritime and naval capacity.
  • Conduct joint intelligence reviews with Indiaand enhance coordination with Indian officials on contingency planning in the event of a future India-China conflict.
  • Criticize Beijing’s efforts at land-grabbing in multilateral forums, including the U.N., Shangri-La Dialogue, G20, and East Asia Summit.
  • Message Pakistanabout the need to stay neutral in the event of a potential future India-China border flare-up.
  • Be prepared to extend full support to India, in the event of another border crisis or conflict.

Campbell began by lauding the report for pointing out how the border issue between India and China affect and impact the Indo-Pacific, even though it was not directly in the maritime arena of the Indo-Pacific, one of the most dynamic challenges facing the US, since it involved not just security and political issues but also environmental and other factors.

He then explained how China’s growing military might and belligerence had led to some dramatic realignments in the region and beyond. These included pacifist nations like Japan deciding to ramp up their military might, and countries like Australia and Canada, among others, investigating Chinese interference in their nations like infiltrating student groups, organizations, universities and even political parties. South Korea’s outreach to Japan was another example.

“Over the past few decades, there’s been a huge number of people pulled out of poverty, wealth creation, innovation, peace and stability in the region, including China, and one of the important reasons is the role the United States has played as a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

However, “We believe that there are some signs that China is seeking to alter that compact, those complex understandings about freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of disputes and the framework that has led to this remarkable peace and prosperity.”

Noting that the U.S. was not targeting China, he said “I can assure you when we are engaging with partners in the region we are talking to them about issues that matter to them and to us. Like climate change. Illegal fishing, education, technology.”

But “while our engagement broadly is with the region and institutions, there are areas of intense focus,” and “the most important bilateral relationship for the United States into the 21st century for me is the relationship with India,” he said.

 We just concluded discussions on an India-U.S. Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), where the Indian National Security Advisor brought the highest-ranking group of Indian technologists ever to come to any country to the United States to talk about how to partner on areas going forward, and we are working more on defence related issues,” he said. “Then there are partnerships in health, and efforts to work together in space. So the agenda is extraordinarily rich, the ambitions are high.”

However, he said, “I do want to underscore something that’s important: India is a great power. India is not an ally of the United States and will never be an ally of the United States. But it does not mean that we will not be close partners, and share many things. That’s how we need to understand the role that India will play. It is a great nation on the global stage and we want to encourage and support that and deepen this relationship which is already very strong. Probably the strongest people-to-people relationship of any country that the United States has on the global stage.”

He then spoke about how President Biden had revitalised the Quad, an informal alliance among Japan, Australia the U.S. and India to deepen cooperation among themselves as well as with the Indo-Pacific region. These four nations are among the few capable of pushing back against Chinese coercion and intimidation.

After underlining that this was an unofficial alignment to focus on issues associated with infrastructure, maritime domain awareness, and educational initiatives, he said: “We have several things planned when the leaders meet in Sydney.”

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