Partnership between the world's two largest democracies is full of opportunities, says US defence secretary.
Washington’s quest to build strong allies, partners and friends in the brought to a tour of Asia last week – and unsurprisingly his biggest time and energy was devoted to New Delhi.
Describing the relationship between as a “stronghold” of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Austin said during his visit that elevating the US-India defence partnership remains a priority of the administration.
After holding wide-ranging talks with , Austin said India is an increasingly important partner amid rapidly shifting global geopolitics and Washington was committed to a "forward-looking" defence partnership with New Delhi as a central pillar of its approach to the region.
“I reaffirmed our commitment to a comprehensive and forward-looking defence partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach to the region," Austin said in a statement in the presence of Singh during his 3-day visit. "As the world faces a global pandemic and growing challenges to an open and stable international system, the US-India relationship is a stronghold of a free and open Indo-Pacific region," he said.
Those statements assume significance in the wake of the stronger narrative on the Indo-Pacific coming from the White House ever since Biden took over.
Even prior to his visit, Austin had said that the Asia trip was meant to further “credible deterrence” against . He said that the United States’ goal “is to make sure that we have the capabilities and the operational plans… to be able to offer a credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the US.”
While Biden is likely to stay the course on the Trump administration’s muscular approach to China, but instead of Trump’s unilateralist approach to foreign policy, the new White House seems intent to work with a coalition of allies and partners. That’s exactly what Austin signalled during his three-day visit to India as part of his three-nation first overseas tour – showcasing the Biden administration's strong commitment to its relations with its close allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
According to the US Defence Secretary, as the Indo-Pacific region faces challenges to a free and open regional order, cooperation among like-minded countries was critical to secure the shared vision for the future. "We discussed opportunities to elevate the – a priority of the Biden-Harris Administration – through regional security cooperation, military-to-military interactions, and defence trade," Austin said. "In addition, we are continuing to advance new areas of collaboration, including information-sharing, logistics cooperation, artificial intelligence; and cooperation in new domains such as space and cyber," he added.
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During his visit to the Pentagon in February, Biden had conveyed the message that the US is “prepared to confront – and when necessary, militarily counter – a rising China.” Biden also announced the establishment of a new Defense Department China Task Force, responsible for reviewing the US approach to China in areas including strategy and force posture as well as technology and intelligence.
Echoes of that approach found mention in Austin‘s comments in India.
He described his talks with Singh as a "productive" discussion on a number of security issues which are important to the two countries. "As the Indo-Pacific region faces acute transnational challenges, such as climate change, and challenges to a free and open regional order, cooperation among like-minded countries is imperative to securing our shared vision for the future," he said.
"Despite today's challenging security environment, the partnership between the US and India, the world's two largest democracies, remains resilient and strong and we will seek every opportunity to build upon this major partnership," he added.
Rapidly changing dynamics
Significantly, Austin said he wanted to convey the Biden administration's message of the US's strong commitment to its allies and partners. "India, in particular, is an increasingly important partner amid today's rapidly shifting international dynamics," he said, and referred to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's comments that India stands for "freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and adherence to international law".
"This is a resounding affirmation of our shared vision for regional security in the Indo-Pacific. And it's clear that the importance of this partnership, and its impact to the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead," he said.