Austin, the first-ever US defence secretary to include India on his maiden foreign trip, is scheduled to meet his counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval during his New Delhi visit from March 19 to 21.
Coming on the heels of the historic Quad summit, the visit of Austin to India is reflective of the significance the new Biden administration attaches to its ties to the Indian government amid China’s aggressive behaviour and coercive economic policies.
US President Joe Biden on Friday opened the first Quad Leaders’ Summit held virtually and attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The administration is “signalling the importance of the US-India defence and security partnership just by having this visit,” according to Vikram Singh, senior advisor on aerospace and defence at the US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF).
During his confirmation hearing, Austin had told members of a Senate Committee that he said wanted to elevate the relations with India.
Singh, who previously worked at the Pentagon and the State Department under the Obama administration, said that he expects that Austin’s visit is going to be intended to highlight all of the significant progress that has been made between the two countries and that they are extremely close partners now, sharing intelligence and a lot of weapons systems and hardware.
“The United States has sold over USD 21 billion worth of military equipment to India. It’s generally become India’s largest military supplier and partner,” he said in a Twitter video post of the USISPF.
He said India and the US are strategically aligned on issues, especially managing the rise of China and defending free and open transit of goods and services to people through the region.
Singh acknowledged that the challenges between the two nations in the security sector are centred around India’s plan to purchase the S-400 Air Defense System from Russia.
In October 2018, India had signed a USD 5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, despite a warning from the then Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions.
In 2019, India made the first tranche of payment of around USD 800 million to Russia for the missile systems.
The S-400 is known as Russia’s most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile defence system.
The US had imposed sanctions on Russia under the stringent provisions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA.
The law also provides for punitive action against countries purchasing defence hardware from Russia.
Singh said one of the questions for the leaders to address is how to make sure that India doesn’t run afoul of those sanctions laws in the United States.
On Wednesday, Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a letter to Austin urged him to raise the issue of India’s plan to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia.
India, Singh said India is not like Turkey or a lot of other countries.
“It (India) is a longtime Russian part military partner and it’s moving more and more in the direction of the US and its allies. But it still has a long-standing security relationship and a lot of dependency on Russia for a number of its most important systems,” Singh said.
The USISPF has urged the Biden administration to manage sanctions risks under CAATSA and support US defence industry efforts in India, including efforts to win contracts for offensive platforms like fighter jets.
The US recognised India as a “Major Defence Partner” in 2016, a designation that allows India to buy more advanced and sensitive technologies from America at par with that of the US’ closest allies and partners, and ensures enduring cooperation into the future.
Last week, a top Pentagon official told lawmakers that the Biden administration is looking at deepening its military and technical cooperation with India by not only providing it with arms and equipment but also helping New Delhi develop its own defence industrial base so that it can produce equipment to service their needs and to be able to work with America and others around the region.