New Delhi: US deputy secretary of state Stephen E. Biegun said on Monday that both India and US have been “too cautious” in developing strategic linkages within and outside the ‘Quad’ by always trying to anticipate China’s response.
This was stated by Beigun in his opening remarks at the closed-door India-US forum organised by Ananta Aspen Centre.
The senior US diplomat’s push to give the ‘Quad’ a more pronounced strategic posture vis-à-vis China came just a week after the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had called on the other three countries to “collaborate” against Beijing.
During the Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in Tokyo, Pompeo had said that it was “even more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption, and coercion”.
The opening remarks by the foreign ministers of India, Australia and Japan, however, made no explicit mention of China.
After quoting the words of former Indian ambassador to China Ashok Kantha that China’s reaction should not dictate India’s closer ties to Quad or the US, Beigun asserted, “We have been too cautious”.
“Last week’s important and successful Quad ministerial leaves the US confident that perhaps, just maybe, we can say that we are present at the creation of those strategic linkages to which ambassador Kantha refer,” he added.
He called for increasing contacts “at all levels between the Quad’s diplomats, defence officials, and technical experts”. So far, the Quad had largely met at the level of senior foreign office officials, before it was elevated to a ministerial forum in 2019.
Giving the example of weekly calls between Quad ‘plus’ countries since March, Beigun said that such “regularised engagement” offers the opportunity to allow more effective joint action in times of crises.
“And these relationships should go beyond government-to-government contact to span all areas of mutual interests—economics, development, trade, investment, health, technology and innovation, as well as security cooperation,” he said.
The US official pointed out that partnerships between the countries could help finance the infrastructure and energy needs of Indo-Pacific, which is estimated to be around $25 trillion over the next decade. This is an initiative that has been flagged by some of the Quad members to be an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“The Quad is a partnership driven by shared interests, not binding obligations, and is not intended to be an exclusive grouping. Any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific and is willing to take steps to ensure that, should be welcome to work with us,” said Beigun, indicating that the Quad could be expanded.
He described the current Quad countries as ‘four democratic anchors in an Indo-Pacific region buffeted by changing winds and shifting currents’. “We each have our imperfections, of course, and our own histories that steered our democratic paths, but we share values as well as common interests, and together our democracies represent the voices of a nearly a quarter of the world’s population”.
Describing a vision “Pax Indo-Pacifica”, Beigun said that recent events in the region show that it was not a foregone conclusion. “Our work together in the Quad and in other multilateral groupings are critical pillars toward this end, as is formalizing our cooperation – bilaterally and with others – in more regular and systematic ways that offer benefits to our nations’ security”.
On the US-India relationship, he noted that Washington had already increased foreign military sales and intelligence sharing with India. “The US has already begun some of these efforts, including increased foreign military sales and intelligence sharing with India. But there is more that we can do, including strengthening India’s ability to defend itself and by promoting interoperability among our militaries through regular exercises and exchanges, common defence platforms and co-development”.
He noted that this would be on the agenda for the forthcoming ‘two plus two’ between the foreign and defence leadership of the two countries in Delhi.
The senior US official’s visit comes in the backdrop of the continuing military stand-off between India and China, which began in May. At least 20 lives have been lost and shots were fired at the border for the first time in decades in separate clashes between soldiers of the two sides on the icy heights of eastern Ladakh. While talks have continued at various level, there has been no public breakthrough in the disengagement process to get back to status quo ante.