US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J Austin, who arrived in New Delhi on Friday, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and conveyed Washington’s “strong desire” to further enhance the strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
He also conveyed the Biden administration’s “commitment towards strengthening the bilateral defence relations between the two countries”.
According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Modi “outlined his vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries and emphasized the important role of bilateral defence cooperation in India-US ties”.
Pleasure to meet U.S. @SecDef Lloyd Austin today. Conveyed my best wishes to @POTUS @JoeBiden. India and US are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good. pic.twitter.com/Z1AoGJlzFX
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— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 19, 2021
The Prime Minister also “welcomed the warm and close relationship between the two countries, which is rooted in shared values of democracy, pluralism and commitment to a rules-based order”.
The US embassy, in a statement, said Austin’s first-day meetings were with the Prime Minister and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
“Secretary Austin commended India’s leadership role in the Indo-Pacific and growing engagement with like-minded partners across the region to promote shared goals. The two sides reaffirmed their commitment to promote a free and open regional order. Both sides exchanged perspectives on shared challenges confronting the region and committed to further strengthen their broad ranging and robust defence cooperation,” it said.
Soon after he reached New Delhi, Austin, in a Twitter post, said: “Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defense partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region.”
The reference to “the most pressing challenges” in the Indo-Pacific region is aimed at China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Modi’s reference to democracy, and commitment to a rules-based order is also a veiled reference to Beijing.
The conversation took place hours after a public spat between top US and Chinese officials at a meeting in Alaska.
Austin’s arrival in New Delhi marks the first visit by a senior official of the Biden administration which came to power in January.
He will meet his Indian counterpart, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, on Saturday. He will also visit the National War Memorial at India Gate and will be accorded a ceremonial guard of honour.
The visit comes days after the first-ever summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral grouping, the Quad. The March 12 summit was attended by President Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison.
On Wednesday, Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Austin ahead of his India visit, raising the Indian purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia.
“If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under Section 231 of CAATSA. It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts,” Menendez wrote.
He urged Austin to “raise democracy and human rights concerns in your discussions with the Indian government” and mentioned that “we must acknowledge that the partnership is strongest when based on shared democratic values and the Indian government has been trending away from those values”.
Austin’s visit to India will be part of his first international tour after taking charge as Secretary of Defense. In a statement last week, the Ministry of Defence said: “Austin’s visit to India as part of his first overseas travel emphasizes the strength of the India-US strategic partnership”.
It stated that “both sides are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges and common interests in maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.
In his January 27 phone call to Rajnath Singh, Austin had also noted the “great strides” made in the US-India defence relationship, and had pledged to work with the Defence Minister to sustain progress.
Interactions between India and the US defence establishment have been quite robust in the last few weeks.
On March 2, General Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, met Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria along with his delegation at the Air Headquarters and discussed ways to further strengthen bilateral ties.
On February 22-24, senior Army officers of the two countries had discussed ways to enhance defence cooperation during the 24th edition of the Executive Steering Group (ESG) meeting.
At the Aero India early February, the American B-1B Lancer heavy bomber flew along the Indian Light Combat Aircraft Tejas.
Indo-US cooperation on defence and intelligence has been of very high quality in the last 10 months, and involved sharing of high-end satellite images, telephone intercepts, and data exchange on Chinese troops and weapon deployment along the Line of Actual Control.
Sources said New Delhi has been watching Chinese movements in “all sectors” of the LAC, with some help from the US and its platforms.
The Indian armed forces have used at least five American platforms at the LAC in eastern Ladakh — the C-17 Globemaster III for military transport, the Chinook CH-47 as heavy-lift helicopters, the Apache for threatening armour, the P-8I Poseidon for overland reconnaissance, and the C-130J for airlifting troops.
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