The visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to India officially beginning Saturday (March 20) comes at a critical juncture: New Delhi has barely managed to move away from a prolonged face-off with China’s PLA in eastern Ladakh and has recommitted itself to the 2003 LOC ceasefire agreement with Pakistan.
Besides, New Delhi has made itself a willing partner of the Quad grouping that includes US, Australia, Japan and India. The Quad is essentially a Washington-sponsored alliance to thwart China’s aggressive posturing in the Indo-Pacific, a region of immense trade and security concerns. Media reports said the talks between the two sides would focus more on “multilateralism” rather than on bilateral ties, especially after the recent virtual summit meeting of the Quad partners.
Austin’s visit will mark the first direct interaction between the two countries since Joe Biden assumed Presidency a couple of months ago. Since Washington’s 2016 designation of India as a “major defense partner,” the two sides have moved towards ties where the focus is much more on strategic partnership.
There are expectations of defence deals being signed. Given the wider reach of the partnership, the weapons’ purchase alone hardly looks significant in comparison with the reiteration and, more importantly, the practical task of building blocks for the new security alliance that has been shaping up despite the COVID pandemic challenges.
Media reports say the visiting Secretary of Defense will be given a Guard of Honour before he holds talks with his counterpart Rajnath Singh. Given the regional environment and the need for a thrust to Quad, it is unlikely that the two sides would focus only on trading high-tech American weapon gadgetry.
The US administration is being repeatedly sounded out about Indo-Russian deal on S-400 missile defence system and the resultant American counter-measures against the deal. For the record, Washington is already in talks with New Delhi for a possible sale of jet fighters both for the IAF and the Navy. Unmanned aerial system, including armed drones are also on India’s shopping list.
Austin, a former commander of the US Central Command, will also possibly take up Afghanistan. Biden has said it would be “tough” to meet the deadline to withdraw American troops from that country by May 1, as agreed with the Taliban in a deal made under Donald Trump. “I am in the process of making that decision now as to when they will leave,” Biden said a few days ago of the last 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. “It could happen, but it is tough.”
Biden’s remarks came shortly before Russia, China, the US, Pakistan, a delegation of top Afghan officials and opposition leaders and Taliban negotiators met in Moscow in an attempt to kickstart deadlocked peace talks. There are fears that if the US-led international forces leaves before a peace deal is chiseled out, Afghanistan could plunge into a new civil war.
India is a part of a proposed US plan for a United Nations conference on a settlement. Indian concerns about Afghanistan and the US withdrawal are likely to feature in Austin’s discussions in New Delhi.
There are concerns within the Biden administration about the alleged curtailment of human rights and restrictions on press freedom in India under the Modi dispensation. On Thursday (Match 18), a top lawmaker appealed to Austin to raise with India not only these issues but also the “ongoing crackdown” on protesting farmers.
Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a strongly-worded letter to Austin said: “I would like to see the US-India partnership grow, but we must acknowledge that the partnership is strongest when based on shared democratic values.” He also underlined the “deteriorating situation of democracy in India.”