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Indo-US Meet: What Defence Secy’s Visit Means in Relation to China

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit shows the interest of the Biden govt to maintain good ties with India.

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Opinion
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, 19 March, met United States (US) Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and conveyed his best wishes for US President Joe Biden.
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We should neither overstate, nor underplay the importance of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s visit to New Delhi. At one level, this is part of his Asia tour, which has taken him to important allies like South Korea and Japan. On the other hand, that New Delhi has been included in the itinerary indicates a level of interest of the current Biden administration on good ties with India.

Austin’s visit must also be placed in the context of the Biden Administration’s efforts to give shape to a new China policy. Indeed, Austin came to New Delhi via Seoul and Tokyo, where he along with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken participated in a 2+2 dialogue with their counterparts.

While Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went on to Alaska to talk to the Chinese, Austin came away to India, which is being seen as a key anchor in the Biden policy that aims to outcompete China in a range of areas, including humanitarian relief, tackling pandemics and harnessing emerging technologies, rather than merely focusing on security issues.
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Speaking at a press briefing after his officials talks, General Austin said that, “India is an increasingly important partner among today’s rapidly shifting international dynamics.” He met Prime Minister Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval on Friday, 19 March, and held official talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Saturday, 20 March. He also met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

According to a Pentagon press note, the two sides discussed their partnership through the prism of regional security cooperation, military to military interactions and defense trade.

Following his meetings, Gen Austin confirmed that he had raised the issue of human rights of minorities with his counterparts, presumably with Rajnath Singh, Doval and Jaishankar. He said it was important for partners to have “those kinds of discussions”.

But both sides played down the issue with the Americans excising it from their readouts and the Indians claiming, somewhat incredulously that the human rights discussed were in relation to Afghanistan, not India.

Why Defense Is Key to Indo-US Relations

It is no accident that the first top official of the Biden Administration to visit India is a Secretary of Defense. This is the area where most of the things are happening in the Indo-US relationship.

Over the years the US has emerged as a major seller of arms to India, a provider of technology transfers and a country that has laid the groundwork for greater cooperation through a mesh of agreements. India has signed all four of the so-called US foundational agreements, the last being the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA). This last has been useful in accessing US-origin geospatial information India has needed in its confrontation with China in the Himalayas.

In addition, it has been given the STA -1 status and the designation of a “major defense partner”.

Austin’s visit was aimed at seeing if all this can now be taken up to a qualitatively higher level where these agreements yield results in terms of new industrial ventures, technology transfers, as well as activities such as joint patrols.

The Significance of the Indian Ocean in Indo-US Talks

On the eve of the visit, an unnamed senior Pentagon official noted that the visit was aimed at “operationalising” the defence partnership that the US has with India. Equally significantly, he mentioned that the aim was to “network and build partnerships with India and with other partners, whether it’s in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean.”

The reference to the Indian Ocean is significant because Indo-US defence cooperation has been run by the US Indo-Pacific Command, whose remit runs only to the eastern Indian Ocean. But, as is well known, India’s primary maritime security concerns lie in the western Indian Ocean, which includes the northern Arabian Sea through which the bulk of our oil comes from.

Currently all the exercises and exchanges that take place are with the Indo-Pacific Command. However, we can now expect that the US will factor in Indian concerns and include India in the cooperation activities of its important Central Command, which includes the fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.

In line with this, the discussions that Gen Austin had with his Indian counterparts will in all likelihood have included issues relating to Afghanistan, as well as the traditional ones relating to China and the Indo-Pacific.

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US Warns India as Relations Rest on Adherence to ‘Democratic Values’

The US is, of course, signaling complex intentions. On one hand it is marking out India  for attention for its ambitious Indo-Pacific Strategy. On the other, it is also warning the Modi government that it will not get a free pass.

This was evident from the letter of Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote to Gen Austin on the eve of his visit. In the letter the Senator noted that while the US-India partnership is “critical to meet the challenges of the 21st century, the partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values”, which in his view, India was “trending away” from.

The government of India seems inclined to ignore these complaints in the belief that the US needs India to operationalise its Indo-Pacific strategy. But they need to pay heed the fact that this administration is shaping up its contest with China as an ideological battle between democratic and authoritarian countries. As long as India was somewhat peripheral to American concerns, it could afford to tweak Washington’s nose and get away with it. But as its importance to American goals increases, it will have to bear the burden of increasing scrutiny, which often comes with a democratic administration.

However, there are also huge positives available to New Delhi if it is willing to play ball. Along with a bipartisan group of Senators, Menendez has sponsored legislation like the Democracy Technology Partnership Act. Under this, the US will establish an inter-agency office at the Department of State to lead in the creation of a new technology partnership among democratic countries in opposition to China. The new office will seek to create an International Technology Partnership for setting policies and standards, conducting joint research and coordinating export controls and investment screening in areas like 5G, AI, quantum computing and other emerging technologies.

In other words, India has the opportunity to play the role that China had played so far, in becoming a chosen destination for high-tech investment from the west. But that requires the government of India to do much more in terms of providing the infrastructure and regulatory mechanisms. Mere slogans or a sense of entitlement will not work.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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