New Delhi: America’s defence secretary Lloyd James Austin III arrived in New Delhi Friday on a three-day official visit, at a time when India and the United States are concerned over an increasingly assertive China in the region.
This is the first high-profile contact between the Biden administration and the Indian political leadership. The visit is seen as significant as Mr Austin included India is his first foreign tour, with the US seeking allies to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region.
Mr Austin called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi Friday and conveyed the greetings of US President Joe Biden. Mr Modi welcomed the warm and close relationship between the two countries, “rooted in the shared values of democracy, pluralism and commitment to a rules-based international order”.
The PM outlined his vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries and emphasised the important role of bilateral defence cooperation in India-US ties. Mr Austin reiterated the US government’s continued commitment towards strengthening bilateral defence ties between the two countries. He expressed the strong US desire to further enhance the strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
“Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defence partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region,” said the US defence secretary in a tweet.
Mr Austin was also scheduled to meet national security adviser Ajit Doval on Friday and will hold wide-ranging bilateral talks with defence minister Rajnath Singh on Saturday.
The US defence secretary arrived in India at a time when US and Chinese officials have had sharp exchanges in the first high-level talks between the Biden administration and China in Alaska. The relationship between India and China is also frosty due to the Chinese aggression at the LAC in Ladakh.
The growing Chinese threat, increasing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the Afghan peace process and enhancing military ties will be on the top of the agenda during Saturday’s India-US dialogue. India is also likely to ask the Biden administration for a complete waiver of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying the Russian S-400 air defence systems.
Earlier, Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Mr Austin in a letter Wednesday to take up with Indian leaders the issue of New Delhi procuring the S-400 missile defence system from Russia and also human rights issues.
India is also looking to buy armed drones from the US for the Air Force, Army and Navy in a deal which is estimated at around $3 billion.
The US defence secretary will lay a wreath at the National War Memorial on Saturday morning and will receive a tri-services guard of honour. After that he will hold extensive talks with the Indian delegation led by defence minister Rajnath Singh, where the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat, will also be present. The two ministers will later read out a joint statement in the afternoon. He will also meet external affairs minister S. Jaishankar.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration in its “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” had said that the US would deepen its partnership with India to advance its objectives. Last week, the leaders from the “Quad” countries — the US, India, Japan, and Australia — met for the first time as concerns grow over Chinese “assertiveness” in the Indo-Pacific region. The US has been in favour of giving the “Quad” a security architecture to check China’s growing aggression in the region.
The US defence secretary visited Japan and South Korea before arriving in India, which are crucial US allies in the region.
India has recently brought a slew of weapons from the US, including Apache attack helicopters, Chinook helicopters, P8I maritime patrol aircraft, precision Guided-Excalibur Munitions and M-777 howitzers.