Indo-US defence ties tempered by realities

What was in President Trump’s mind in concluding the 2+2 agreement when the US Administration is in a ‘transitional mode’? What would happen to our deterrence against China if Joe Biden gets elected and follows Obama’s policy of prioritising US-China relations over ‘Other Fronts’?

Indo-US defence ties tempered by realities

Realistic: Not much should be expected from the deal beyond tech support for defence.

Vappala Balachandran

Ex-Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat

Ground realities should be kept in mind before we become too exultant over the US-India 2+2 Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geospatial Cooperation signed on October 27. Technological cooperation to upgrade our defence system should certainly be considered a great success. However, to expect anything beyond that is unrealistic.

Our visual media has already gone in an overdrive, some even suggesting that the US would give us a ‘security embrace’, something like the US Air Umbrella option recommended by General BM Kaul on October 27, 1962, as recorded by the late BN Mullik. This type of cooperation has not happened even in the Asia-Pacific region where China has been traditionally very aggressive. A case study of the Philippines, the oldest ‘partner’ of America in the Asia-Pacific region, which has been facing Chinese aggression since 1971, would prove this.

US-Philippines relations go back to 1898 when Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, forcing colonial Spain’s surrender. Spain ceded the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to America as war redemption, besides paying $20 million. Since then, except for three years of Japanese occupation (1941-44), US-Philippines economic and military relations were very close, especially after its independence as a republic in 1946. As a result, the United States is the destination for the largest number of migrants from the Philippines (2 million in 2018).

In 1947, both countries concluded a ‘Military bases agreement’ followed by a ‘Mutual defence treaty’ in 1951 which included island territories of the Philippines in the Pacific. This was to remain in force indefinitely. Acting upon this, the Philippines expected the US to intervene and reclaim their islands in South China Sea, which they called as Luzon sea or West Philippine Sea from the Kuomintang and later from Communist China. It never happened because of rival claims on South China Sea islands by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines after the Second World War.

In 1992, the US vacated their Clark and Subic Bay bases due to growing domestic opposition against foreign presence. However, this was partly offset by the ‘Visiting forces agreement’ in 1998 through which closer military cooperation, especially in combating growing terrorism, became possible.

Bilateral relations took a nosedive from 2016 under President Rodrigo Duterte when the US started criticising the country’s human rights record while pursuing the President’s drive against drugs. Part of his anger was also directed against the Obama Administration which re-interpreted the US policy on the South China Sea, and that too, even after concluding an ‘Enhanced defence cooperation’ agreement between the two militaries on April 28, 2014, which came into force on June 24 that year.

Washington DC took a policy stand that it would not like to be drawn into regional disputes, which might ‘disrupt US-China cooperation on other fronts, drown out the voices of regional states, or dominate US Asia strategy’. At the same time, it also gave top priority to freedom of navigation through China’s claim of exclusive economic zone (EEZ). For the affected countries, this reiteration was of no solace.

This policy had caused strain in bilateral relations, especially under the acerbic President Duterte who threatened to go to “Russia or China” if the US would not help him. Part of his frustration was also because the US would not lend its weight to help him tackle the Chinese aggression even after the favourable Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) verdict on their claims. In 2013, the Philippines had taken the dispute on Spratly Islands to the PCA which gave its award on July 12, 2016. It said that China had no legal case “to claim historic rights to resources beyond what was defined in the UNCLOS”.

Unlike the Obama Administration, the Trump regime has been more ‘vocal’ in denouncing China and supporting ASEAN claims in South China Sea. In March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Duterte and assured him of mutual defence in South China Sea. On July 13, he denounced China saying that most Chinese claims in the South China Sea were ‘illegal’. Earlier, on April 15, 2019, American and Filipino defence departments concluded what was called a fresh ‘Special security agreement’ concerning “security measures for the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System-II”.

Even then, the Trump Administration could not do anything when China destroyed a Vietnam fishing boat in April 2020 or earlier in 2019 when 100 Chinese vessels surrounded Filipino islands in a threatening fashion. The only time they heard of a possible US military action was in July this year when a rumour circling in China percolated to Asia-Pacific: that Trump would order strikes on Nansha islands (Spratly Islands) and reefs before November 2020 to win the elections.

As a result, it would appear that the public were not very confident of US help. True, a Pew Research Center survey in December 2019 had found that 64% of the Filipinos had considered America as their closest ally. They were the third in the world to consider that way after Israel (82%), followed by South Korea (71%). Yet, the same survey had found that 47% of the Filipinos had felt that the ‘rise’ of China’s economic strength ‘is a good thing’ compared to 48% who felt that it was ‘a bad thing’.

Significantly, a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) paper of August 4, written by a Taiwanese scholar, Richard Javad Heydarian, amplified these feelings: At least half of the Filipinos were ‘undecided’ (33%) or ‘disagreed’ ( 17%) on ‘whether defence relations with the United States have been beneficial to the Philippines’. It said: “Interestingly, almost half of Filipinos (47%) supported Duterte’s move to explore security and defence relations with China and Russia rather than the United States.” The paper says that this segment has grown from 43% in 2015 to 67% in 2017.

What was in President Trump’s mind in concluding the 2+2 agreement when the US Administration is in a ‘transitional mode’? What would happen to our deterrence against China if Joe Biden gets elected and follows Obama’s policy of prioritising US-China relations over ‘Other Fronts’? 

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