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Pompeo Touts U.S.-India Defense Deal, With an Eye on China

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NEW DELHI—Increased U.S.-Indian military and strategic cooperation will help the two countries manage China’s growing influence in Asia, top U.S. diplomats said Tuesday.

“Our leaders and our citizens see with increasing clarity that the [Chinese Communist Party] 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,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after the two countries signed a landmark defense agreement.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all, particularly in light of increasing aggression and destabilizing activities by China,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.

The agreement will give India access to advanced American map and satellite imagery, enhancing the accuracy of automated weapons, drones and missiles. The pact is known as the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, or Beca.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Esper met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed the importance of ties between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest one and how they should cooperate more to battle Covid-19 and promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Mr. Pompeo earlier Tuesday criticized China, saying U.S. and Indian officials were “cooperating on defeating the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, to confronting the Chinese Communist Party’s threats to security and freedom, to promoting peace and stability throughout the region.”

The Indian side appeared to avoid mentioning China by name, but Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external-affairs minister, said the two sides “reiterated the importance of peace, stability and prosperity for all countries in this region.”

India fought a border clash with China earlier this year, and Mr. Jaishankar stressed the importance of respecting the “territorial integrity and sovereignty  of all states.”

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Esper laid wreaths at a war memorial in New Delhi to honor the sacrifice of Indian soldiers, including the 20 who lost their lives in a deadly clash with the Chinese troops in June this year.

“The United States will stand with the people of India they confront threats to their sovereignty and their liberty,” Mr. Pompeo said at a joint news conference with Indian officials, referring to the violent hand-to-hand clash between Indian and Chinese security forces.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh invited American companies to take advantage of New Delhi’s liberalized foreign-direct investment framework to shift some of their production and global supply chains to India.

New Delhi has eased restrictions on foreign investment in many sectors this year including defense.

“We aspire to go beyond the buyer-seller approach to getting in partnership with the U.S. in defense and related industries,” Mr. Singh said.

American aviation and aerospace giants such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have been pursuing business interests in India’s defense sector. A couple of years ago, the Indian Air Force initiated the process of buying 110 jet fighters in a deal valued at over $15 billion. However, the plan has been put on hold due to adverse economic conditions and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s greater attempts to promote more local manufacturing.

Anti-China protests broke out across India after Indian authorities said 20 of its soldiers died in a clash with Chinese troops in the Himalayan Mountains. It is the worst military confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbors in decades. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP (Originally Published June 18, 2020)

The U.S. is looking for better maritime cooperation with island countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as China seeks to press its own claims and boost its influence through the Belt and Road initiative, focused on building infrastructure and trade.

After New Delhi, Mr. Pompeo is set to visit Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia in an effort to bolster mutual relationships and strive for a consolidated Indo-Pacific against an assertive China.

Ahead of Mr. Pompeo’s arrival in Colombo, China accused the U.S. of planning to use the visit to bully Sri Lanka into distancing itself from Beijing.

The Chinese embassy in Sri Lanka, in a statement Monday, said the United States was plotting “ugly” interference in China-Sri Lanka relations and “forcing small and medium-sized countries to choose sides.”

The fact that India is coordinating with the U.S. to help build the capacity of its neighboring countries in maritime security and infrastructure shows how deep the strategic part of the relationship has reached, said Sreeram Chaulia, dean at O.P. Jindal Global University’s School of International Affairs, in Sonipat, India

“There is a realization that [India] alone can’t ward off Chinese encroachments in the Indian Ocean Region. Henceforward, it will be India plus the U.S.,” and others he said.

Write to William Mauldin at william.mauldin@wsj.com and Rajesh Roy at rajesh.roy@wsj.com

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