In India, top US diplomat calls China 'elephant in the room’

NEW DELHI (AP) - A senior US envoy on Monday called China "an elephant in the room" and said Washington was keen to advance India's interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the US was looking for ways to strengthen India without changing what he called New Delhi's "strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy."
Biegun spoke in New Delhi at the opening session of India-U.S. The forum after his three-day visit to India began on Monday.
"India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy and we respect that. We are not trying to change India's traditions," he said. "Rather, we want to explore how we can strengthen them and India's ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and advance Indian interests throughout the Indo-Pacific region."
In this direction, Washington has increased its sales of foreign military and information exchanges with India, said the second largest US diplomat.
"But there is more we can do, including strengthening India's defense capabilities and promoting interoperability between our militaries," he said.
Biegun warned of the rise of China in the region. "Of course there is an elephant in the room on the way in that direction: China," he said.
His visit follows a meeting last week between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his colleagues from India, Japan and Australia in Tokyo, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific states known as the Quad. The group of four nations is seen as a counterbalance to China, which experts say is flexing its military muscles in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Strait and along the northern border with India.
Pompeo said China's increasingly assertive actions in the region made it more important than ever for the Quad to work together and protect its partners and people from Chinese "exploitation, corruption and coercion."
Biegun's New Delhi visit also comes amid a recent flare-up in military tensions between China and India over the controversial mountain border in the Ladakh region. Washington has also increasingly criticized Beijing for coronavirus, trade, technology, Hong Kong, Taiwan and human rights.
China has denied allegations of covering up the pandemic, saying it acted quickly to provide information to the World Health Organization and the world. It is said that the US is the largest attacker in the South China Sea. Beijing also denies human rights abuses in dealing with Hong Kong and minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region. It accuses western nations of meddling in their internal affairs.
Biegun said the partnership between the four quad countries is driven by "common interests, non-binding commitments, and not an exclusive grouping".
"Any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific and is willing to take steps to ensure this should be welcome to work with us," said Biegun.
Biegun is expected to lay the groundwork for the "2 + 2" dialogue during his visit to India between Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and their Indian counterparts, Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Secretary Rajnath Singh later this month.
Biegun's remarks about respecting India's strategic autonomy were seen as allaying India's concerns about forming direct strategic alliances so as not to upset emerging China. India is the only country among the quad nations that borders Beijing.
Hussain reported from Srinagar, India.

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