NEW DELHI (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense chief Mark Esper stepped up the Trump administration's anti-China message in India on Tuesday, exactly a week ahead of America's presidential election.
With President Donald Trump in a tight race for a second term against former Vice President Joe Biden, Pompeo and Esper sought to play on Indian suspicions about China to shore up a regional front against increasing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. They also lauded joint cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
In talks with their Indian counterparts, Pompeo and Esper signed an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing and highlighted strategic cooperation between Washington and New Delhi with an eye toward countering China. The two men paid tribute to Indian troops killed in defense of their country, including 20 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, referring pointedly to ones posed by the Chinese Communist Party,
"Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the CCP 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," he said.
In a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pompeo and Esper discussed the coronavirus pandemic, security and defense cooperation, and "shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific," said U.S. principal deputy spokesperson Cale Brown.
Esper earlier said the two countries' focus must now "be on institutionalizing and regularizing our cooperation to meet the challenges of the day and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific well into the future." That, he said, is particularly important "in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing actions by China."
Just hours before the meetings began, the Trump administration notified Congress of plans for a $2.37 billion sale of Harpoon missile systems to Taiwan -- the second major arms sale in two weeks to the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province. China reacted to the first sale by announcing sanctions on U.S. defense contractors.
Shortly before the Harpoon sale was announced, Pompeo met late Monday with Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to laud "the strong partnership between the United States and India," declaring it to be "critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Indo-Pacific region, and the world," the State Department said in a statement.
Regardless of domestic U.S. election considerations, it is a critical time in the U.S.-India relationship as China looms large over the Indo-Pacific.
Heightened border tensions between New Delhi and Beijing have added to Chinese-American animosity that has been fueled by disputes over the coronavirus, trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, human rights and disputes between China and its smaller neighbors in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, India is looking to emerge from a shell of internal issues, including unrest in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, as it faces twin threats from China and Pakistan.
Tuesday's meetings come during a flareup of military tensions between India and China in a disputed mountainous region where tens of thousands of soldiers have been engaged in a standoff since May. Trump has offered to help defuse tensions but has yet to receive any indication of interest from either side. India and China fought a monthlong war over the region at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962, and some fear a similar confrontation before this winter sets in.
Pompeo has made no secret of the Trump administration's desire for India's help in the U.S. bid to isolate China. Since Trump became president, the U.S. and India have steadily ramped up their military relationship. When Trump visited India in February, the two sides concluded defense deals worth over $3 billion. Bilateral defense trade has increased from near zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019.
The talks in New Delhi on Tuesday follow a meeting that Pompeo had earlier this month in Tokyo with his counterparts from India, Japan and Australia, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as "the Quad." The Quad is seen as a counterweight to China, which critics say is flexing its military muscle throughout the region.
Pompeo will head back to Washington by way of Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, where he plans to press each nation to push back against Chinese assertiveness, which U.S. officials complain is highlighted by predatory lending and development projects that benefit China more than the presumed recipients.
The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka denounced Pompeo's visit to the island even before he arrived there, denouncing a senior U.S. official's warning that the country should be wary of Chinese investment.
"We encourage Sri Lanka to review the options we offer for transparent and sustainable economic development in contrast to discriminatory and opaque practices," the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, Dean Thompson, said last week. "We urge Sri Lanka to make difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence for long-term prosperity, and we stand ready to partner with Sri Lanka for its economic development and growth."
The Chinese Embassy said the comments were a blatant violation of diplomatic protocols and also chided the U.S. for organizing Pompeo's 24-hour visit and imposing a major logistical burden on the country, which is the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. "Does this approach truly prove your respect to the host country? Is it helpful to local epidemic prevention and control? Is it in the interests of the Sri Lankan people?" the embassy said in a statement.