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India, US to expand military engagement, defence ties

India, US to expand military engagement, defence ties

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh walks with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin as the latter arrives for a Guard of Honour ceremony in New Delhi, India, Mar 20, 2021. (Photo: AP/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI: Top defence officials from India and the United States pledged on Saturday (Mar 20) to expand their military engagement, underscoring the strengthening defence ties between two countries concerned over China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met in New Delhi and agreed to deepen defence cooperation, intelligence sharing and logistics.

"India is an increasingly important partner in rapidly shifting international dynamics. I reaffirm our commitment to a comprehensive forward-looking defence partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach to the Indo-Pacific region," Austin said.

Austin is making the first visit to India by a top member of President Joe Biden's administration. His visit follows a meeting last week between leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, which together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad.

The Quad is seen as a counterweight to China, whom critics say is flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Strait and along its northern border with India.

China has called the Quad an attempt to contain its ambitions.

COMMENTARY: Is China too big to tame? No easy answers to Quad's central challenge

Austin's Indian counterpart, Singh, said the talks were focused on "expanding military-to-military engagement".

"We are determined to realise the full potential of comprehensive global strategic partnership," Singh said.

Austin arrived in New Delhi on Friday and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister's Office, Modi "outlined his vision for the strategic partnership between the two countries and emphasised the important role of bilateral defence cooperation in India-US ties".

Before the talks on Saturday, Austin visited the National War Memorial and was accorded a ceremonial guard of honour.

The timing of Austin's visit, which follows talks between high-ranking US and Chinese officials in Alaska amid a bitter exchange of words, signals the importance Biden places on New Delhi as a security ally.

The US and India have steadily ramped up their military relationship in recent years and signed a string of defence deals and deepened military cooperation. In 2019, the two sides concluded defence deals worth more than US$3 billion. Bilateral defence trade increased from near zero in 2008 to US$15 billion in 2019.

The US-India security partnership enjoys strong bipartisan support in Washington, and it has grown significantly since the early 2000s even though trade agreements have been a sticking point. But in recent years, relations between the countries have been driven by a convergence of interests to counter China.

More recently, India drew closer to the US following its months-long military standoff with China along their disputed border in eastern Ladakh, where deadly clashes erupted last year. Tensions between the nuclear-armed Asian giants have eased after the two countries pulled back troops from one area of contention.

Source: AP/dv

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