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Deeper ties, Indo-Pacific on the agenda of US defence secy visit

Washington The United States will seek to deepen the “Major Defense Partnership” with India during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit and advance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the western Indian Ocean region, which is an emerging area of interest for coordinated action by the two countries
By Yashwant Raj
PUBLISHED ON MAR 11, 2021 12:02 AM IST

Washington The United States will seek to deepen the “Major Defense Partnership” with India during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit and advance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the western Indian Ocean region, which is an emerging area of interest for coordinated action by the two countries.

Austin will reach India next week after visiting Japan and South Korea. This will be his first trip overseas after taking office and, notably, it is to the Indo-Pacific, reflecting the importance the Biden administration is according to the region. He will begin the tour on March 13 with a visit to the US Indo-Pacific command headquarters in Hawaii.

In his meetings in India, Secretary Austin will “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,” the defense department said Wednesday.

“Major Defense Partnership” is a description unique to India-US defense ties. India was designated a Major Defense Partner by the Obama administration in 2016, and it was elevated by the Trump administration to Strategic Trade Authorization tier 1 status, which allows India license-free access to a wide range of military and dual-use technologies, same as NATO allies of the United States.

India’s defense purchases from the United States have ballooned in recent years. It is using an increasing number of US platforms — such as P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, C-130J and C-17 military transport aircraft, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, Precision Guided-Excalibur artillery shells, and M777 howitzers. India had ordered Apache and MH-60R multi-mission Seahawk helicopters worth $3.1 billion in February, a top US military commander told lawmakers at a hearing Tuesday. And, according to reports, India is in talks with the country for armed drones.

It could not be immediately ascertained if new deals will be announced during Austin’s visit.

The US defense secretary will begin his tour on Saturday, day after the first summit of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — or the Quad, as the group comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan is popularly called — underscoring, once again, the importance the Biden administration is giving to the region.

The Indo-Pacific and Europe will see the “most robust” US military presence under President Joe Biden, as stated in a National Security Strategic Guidance released last week.

In his meetings with his counterparts and other officials in the region, the Pentagon said, Austin will “reinforce the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region – founded on respect for international rules, laws, and norms”, the US department of defense said.

The secretary will be joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken for 2+2 meetings with their counterparts in Japan and South Korean, both treaty allies of the United States. India and the US also had a similar 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi in October last year.

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