U.S., India Vow to Deepen Defense Ties

NEW DELHI – The United States and India have pledged to deepen their defense ties as the Biden administration seeks to strengthen cooperation among regional allies to face China.

The Indo-Pacific region faces pressing transnational issues such as climate change and challenges to a free and open regional order. Cooperation among like-minded nations is necessary to secure our common vision of the future, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday.

Austin, the first senior member of the Biden administration to visit India, arrived Friday after a trip to Japan and South Korea earlier this week. His trip came a week after the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an alliance of countries seeking to counter the expansionism of China, the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

Austin met Saturday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, as well as his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh.

After the meeting, Austin said that strengthening military cooperation with India is a priority for the Biden administration. The new US administration quickly turned to its allies and close partners such as India to form a stronger front against China.

Mr. Austin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday.

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Press Office/Shutterstock Handout

The strained relationship between the United States and China came into clear focus on Thursday when senior diplomats from both countries exchanged insults during the first high-level talks in Alaska.

India-China relations hit a new low last year after a deadly clash on the disputed Himalayan border in June that killed 20 Indian soldiers. China has not admitted losses on its side for months, but said in February that four of its soldiers had been killed.

The pressures of China’s territorial expansion, aggressive exports of 5G technology and debt trap diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific region have reached such a level that curbing the India-US quasi-alliance no longer makes sense, said Sreeram Chaulia, dean of the School of International Relations at O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.

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Over the past two decades, the United States and India have grown closer, beginning with a historic political agreement that legitimized India’s nuclear arsenal and opened the door for U.S. sales of civilian nuclear technology.

According to the US State Department, defence equipment trade between India and the US has grown from almost nothing in 2008 to over $20 billion by 2020. U.S. aerospace companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. and U.S. arms and ammunition suppliers are seizing business opportunities in India.

The two countries signed agreements on closer military cooperation. These included pacts for the exchange of encrypted military intelligence and geospatial data, as well as the use of each other’s bases for the supply of equipment and fuel.

A visitor tries out a Lockheed Martin fighter jet simulator for the Indian Air Force in Lucknow, India, in February 2020.

Photo:

T. Narayan/Bloomberg News

When tensions with China peaked in India last year, Washington leased two surveillance drones to New Delhi. The Modi government is now close to a deal with the US government to buy 30 armed drones for about $3 billion, according to an Indian government official familiar with the negotiations.

Intelligence gathering and data sharing are key elements of any future response to threats in the region. India has been wise to invest in acquiring the future technologies needed to work with its closest allies, said Vivek Lall, chief executive of General Atomics Global Corp, a San Diego-based defence contractor.

Relations between the United States and India have been strained by New Delhi’s plan to buy Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, a deal that could lead to U.S. sanctions. The United States reiterated its objections during Austin’s visit, an Indian official said.

Prior to Austin’s visit to India, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense opposing the Russian agreement. If India decides to buy the S-400, it would certainly mean a major and therefore sanctioned transaction with the Russian defence sector, Menendez said.

During a briefing with a select group of media representatives on Saturday, Austin said the possible sanctions had not been discussed because India had not yet reached an agreement, Indian newspaper NDTV reported.

The agreement, if reached, would also limit India’s ability to cooperate with the United States in developing and acquiring sensitive military technologies, Menendez said.

Indian government officials say New Delhi is nevertheless considering purchasing the Russian missile system because it represents a significant improvement in its defense capabilities.

Send an email to Rajesh Roy at rajesh.roy@wsj.com.

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