Pentagon aims to kick-start new phase of joint security partnership to boost Washington’s designation of New Delhi as a major defence partner.
As US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin begins a three-day visit to India today, it marks the first appearance in India by a top Biden administration official - signifying the critical importance that the new US President accords to the world's biggest democracy.
Austin is visiting India from March 19 to 21 and is scheduled to meet the top political and military leadership of the country. His visit comes amid a flurry of action in US foreign relations focused on Asia this week.
US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and Austin, were on a trip to Japan and South Korea before Austin's arrival in New Delhi. Secretary Blinken will fly to Anchorage, Alaska, where he and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi for the first China-US bilateral of the Biden administration.
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The discussions between the US Defence Secretary and Indian NSA Ajit Doval would be the first major interaction between the two sides during the visit. Austin is also expected to call on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar.
In Austin's scheduled meetings with Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and other senior national security officials such as Doval, the two sides are expected to discuss a deepening of the Major Defence partnership, China and Afghanistan, strategies on the Indo-Pacific and operationalising the "foundational agreements" of US defence cooperation, the last of which was signed in October - the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement.
Indeed, as one of the few bilateral relations that hasn't caused a significant headache for Washington over the past two decades, the US-India security partnership enjoys strong bipartisan support in the US and has grown significantly since the early 2000s, mainly because of shared concerns about China’s rising power. Even during the turbulent Trump era, Washington’s relations with New Delhi continued to consolidate in major areas of strategic security.
“I have no doubt that the discussions will be candid behind closed doors. What’s worth watching, however, is whether the Secretary speaks openly in New Delhi about US or joint efforts to counter Chinese coercion across the Indo-Pacific or falls back on more opaque references to shared threats,” said Joshua White, a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and former South Asia Director in the Obama National Security Council.
Pentagon's focus to kick-start a new phase of the US-India security partnership is significant against that backdrop — one that aims to operationalise the gains made through years of arms sales, technology transfers, defense agreements, and Washington’s 2016 designation of India as a “major defence partner.”
Part of that transition gained traction during the Trump presidency - and Biden seems to be intent on accelerating that momentum. Recent years have seen expanded bilateral military exercises, joint training of international peacekeeping troops, and new arrangements enabling the two navies to refuel each other’s warships.
As the global geopolitical focus moves to the Indo-Pacific in a post-pandemic era, Austin's visit will therefore serve to unlock further opportunities in the sweet spot of defence relations between India and the US.