China on mind, Pentagon chief in India to boost military ties

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Mar 19 (efe-epa).- United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives in India Friday to strengthen military ties between the two countries in what is the first high-profile visit since Joe Biden was sworn- in as the US president in January.

Austin lands in New Delhi a week after the first meeting between the leaders of the so-called “Quad,” an alliance between the US, India, Japan, and Australia formed in response to China’s growing military clout in the region.

Experts say the proximity of the two events underscores the importance Biden gives to the South Asian region.

Austin will meet with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, and other defense officials, a Pentagon statement said.

He would “discuss deepening the US-India Major Defense Partnership and advancing cooperation between our countries for a free, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region,” said the statement.

The US has repeatedly used the mantra to check the supposed expansionist desires of Beijing, whose ties with Washington deteriorated during Donald Trump’s presidency.

New Delhi is the final stop of Austin’s diplomatic tour that took him to Japan and South Korea, with China on the top of his agenda.

According to Uday Bhaskar, a former Indian Navy commodore and a known strategic expert, Austin is on a familiarization tour during the first high-level face-to-face contact between the Biden administration and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“I think it will be kind of taking stock of the ties along the defensive security dimension,” Bhaskar told EFE.

Defense ties between the two have grown in recent years, especially since the US granted India the special status of a “Major Defense Partner” in 2016.

India-China tension has also been rising. A Himalayan border dispute last year killed at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops in June.

The signing of defense pacts between India and the US has opened the door for New Delhi to acquire high-tech equipment and participate in more joint military exercises.

“India is now importing US arms. That will also be an important aspect for him (Austin), because for the US military industrial complex, the sale of arms is very important,” said Bhaskar, the director of think tank Society for Policy Studies.

Defense analyst Sameer Patil from the research center Gateway House said Austin’s visit might lead to a weaponed drones pact.

“India had sent a request (for armed drones) and the US and the Trump administration had cleared it. The Indian Navy wanted it (but) didn’t have enough money. I think they have mustered some resources and are going ahead with the purchase,” he said.

In Patil’s view, the growing closeness between Washington and New Delhi is not without complications.

“The negative implication is that India is now aligning itself with the United States, and might get drawn into some of the issues in which it has a different line of thinking,” he said.

India has to remember China is a neighbor. Washington has maintained a tough stance against Iran during the Trump administration compared to a more accommodative New Delhi.

Another stumbling block is India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which, according to Patil, is expected to be delivered this year. EFE-EPA

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