(This was originally posted in The Hindustan Times)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met visiting US defence secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday. Lloyd is on a three-day visit to India, the first by a senior minister under Joe Biden’s presidency, to further boost bilateral defence and security ties amid China’s growing military assertiveness in the the Indo-Pacific region.
Austin is on a trip to Asian countries to boost military cooperation with American allies and foster “credible deterrence” against China, he had earlier said. Prior to India, the US defense secretary visited Japan and South Korea. His first trip overseas after taking office to the Indo-Pacific points reflects on the importance the Biden administration is according to the region.
“Prime Minister outlined his vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries and emphasized the important role of bilateral defense cooperation in India-US ties. He requested Secretary Austin to convey his best wishes to President Biden,” Modi’s office said in a statement.
During the meeting, Austin reiterated the US government’s continued commitment towards strengthening the bilateral defence relations between the two countries, the statement added. The US secretary also expressed “US’ strong desire to further enhance the strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”. Soon after landing, Austin tweeted that he was thrilled to be in India. “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,” he posted on the microblogging site.
The US official was received at the Palam airport by senior Indian military officials and diplomats from the American embassy.
During Austin’s visit, the two sides will discuss India’s plan to purchase armed drones from the US as well as a large order for over 150 combat jets for the air force and the navy to help narrow the gap with China, news agency PTI reported citing people familiar with the matter.
The Joe Biden administration will provide India access to better capabilities and technologies to enforce the rule of international law in Indo-Pacific, people aware of the development said after US defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has described the Indo-US strategic partnership “a force for global good”.
The top US defence official landed in New Delhi on Friday evening as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to forge an alliance of countries seeking to push back against China’s assertiveness in the region. He met Prime Minister Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval soon after. Austin is scheduled to meet defence minister Rajnath Singh later on Saturday.
“Great meeting with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval last night,” Austin tweeted on Saturday morning. “The breadth of collaboration 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.”
It is understood that the two-hour-long meeting between Secretary Austin and NSA Doval was very positive with both leaders exchanging notes on the security environment in Asia and beyond.
“It is in American interest that there is a favourable balance of power in Asia in face of a militarily assertive China. Washington needs to join hands with countries like India whose territorial integrity is being challenged by Beijing,” said a former Indian foreign secretary.
Austin’s meetings in New Delhi are a strong contrast to meetings that his two colleagues, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, had with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska’s Anchorage. After the first round, both sides publicly skewered each other’s policies in front of TV cameras.
It is quite evident from the readouts of the US-China meeting between top diplomats of the two countries that Beijing will continue to assert its growing power all across the globe with what it called the Chinese style of democracy and push back against US and its allies on all fronts.
Secretary Austin’s meeting with PM Modi and NSA Doval have laid the firm foundation for the two countries to enforce international law in the Indo-Pacific bilaterally and through the Quad platform.
The leaders of the United States, India, Australia and Japan, who met under the aegis of a grouping known as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad held their first summit last week pledged to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific and to cooperate on maritime and cybersecurity in the face of challenges from China.
India and China have been locked in a standoff at multiple locations in the East Ladakh region since May last year after aggressive maneuvres by Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army. The two sides have pulled out troops from the friction points around Pangong Tso but have been unable to move forward in other areas.
While no defence deals are expected out of Secretary Austin’s meeting with defence minister Rajnath Singh, the formal meeting will help the visiting dignitary understand Indian future hardware requirements particularly in light of the increasing maritime domain awareness and reaction capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. As of now, the new Joe Biden administration is reviewing US weapon supplies to its partners and the hardware pipeline is set to resume after Secretary Austin returns to Washington. On top of this agenda are 30 weaponised Predator drones to Indian tri-services and six more P8I anti-submarine warfare and surveillance aircraft apart from the possible transfer of technology to make heavier and more powerful engines for twin-engine fighter being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organization under “Atmanirbhar Bharat” initiative. The Indian Navy is already using two unarmed Predator drones for surveillance of the Indian Ocean and beyond to understand and adapt to the technology.