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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Reuters
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Reuters

India examining implications of US statement on troop deployment to counter China

  • Mike Pompeo's statement comes against the backdrop of China speedily expanding military and economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region
  • Along the India-China border, tensions have spiked dramatically since early May

NEW DELHI : : India is closely examining the implications of a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the US is reviewing its global troop deployment to ensure it is "postured appropriately" to counter the growing Chinese military threat to countries like India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, two people familiar with the developments said Friday.

There was no comment from the Indian foreign ministry on Friday but the statement comes at a time of high tensions between India and China with thousands of troops ranged against each other across the 3,488 kilometre Line of Actual Control border (LAC) despite talks at the level of senior military commanders and diplomats.

Pompeo who was responding to a question during the virtual Brussels Forum 2020 of the German Marshall Fund on Thursday, said: “We're going to make sure we're postured appropriately to counter the People's Liberation Army (PLA). We think that the challenge of our times, and we're going to make sure we have resources in place to do that." The force posture review was being done at the direction of President Donald Trump and as part of this, the US was reducing the number of its troop numbers in Germany by almost half -- from about 52,000 to 25,000.

The new force posture would be dictated by ground realities, he said adding: “In certain places there will be fewer American resources. There will be other places - I just talked about the threat from the Chinese Communist Party, so now threats to India, threats to Vietnam, threats to Malaysia, Indonesia, South China Sea challenges, the Philippines" according to a US statement department transcript.

The comments come against the backdrop of China speedily expanding military and economic influence in the Indo-Pacific region, triggering concerns. It is engaged in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea – both of which are said to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources besides being vital for global trade. Beijing has built and militarised islands and reefs it controls there.

Along the India-China border, tensions have spiked dramatically since early May. In a strong statement on Thursday, India pointed out that it was China that first mobilized its troops and arms on the border in violation of a key pact signed in 1993. India’s troop deployment was to counter the Chinese deployment, the statement said. Besides this, this time around, the Chinese obstructing Indian patrols and the conduct of their forces while doing so as well as Beijing’s “untenable claims" on Indian territory, all pointed towards a major shift in China’s position and intent vis a vis its border dispute with India, the Indian statement indicated.

While there was speculation in some quarters that Pompeo’s comments should be seen in the context of Trump trying to send a message to his domestic audience with presidential polls due in November, one line of thinking in the Indian establishment is that Pompeo’s comments meant that Washington was taking the battle to its adversary.

According to Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London based King’s College, the US statement could be interpreted in many ways including as a “pretext for doing things Trump has always wanted to do" ie reduce US troops presence around the world. It could also be a message to Europe that they would need to take care of their security themselves.

“It could also be putting pressure on China signaling a militarisation of the relationship,"Pant said pointing to the fact that till now tensions were confined to the trade domain with the US imposing economic sanctions. With the US presidential polls looming, it could also be a move to put Democratic party front runner for president, Joe Biden, on the backfoot, Pant said. Given that Southeast Asian countries had complained that despite all the talk of the US “rebalance" towards Asia during the previous Obama administration, Trump will be seen as the president who effected the rebalance, he said.

Whether or not these assumptions were true, for India, the comments could be seen as “helpful" despite the unpredictability of US policies under Trump, Pant said.

“The situation (along the India-China) is clearly not very pretty for India. Against this backdrop, if the US is opening up a new front vis-a-vis China, it could relieve some pressure off India" in the current state of tensions, he said.

To be sure, India neatly sidestepped an offer of “mediation" or “arbitration" from US president Donald Trump last month when tensions were bubbling over between India and China. New Delhi has in the past refused any sort of mediation in its bilateral disputes with Pakistan from Trump and others.

“With the real possibility of escalation of the present situation into a conflict, any leverage here is good," Pant said.

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