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With Eye on China, India and US Pledge Deeper Strategic Partnership

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh walks with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin before reviewing an honor guard in New Delhi, March 20, 2021.

India and the United States have pledged to work together to deepen their strategic partnership during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to New Delhi.

The first visit by a top official of the Biden administration to the Indian capital comes as Washington moves ahead to form an alliance of countries that can act as a counterweight to Beijing and India embraces closer ties with the U.S. amid its own growing concerns about Chinese assertiveness.

The two countries agreed to deepen defense cooperation, intelligence sharing and logistics at a meeting Saturday between Austin and his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh.

Austin called the Indo-U.S. relationship a “stronghold of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

“India, in particular, is an increasingly important partner among today’s rapidly shifting international dynamics,” the U.S. defense secretary said after his discussions with Singh. “I reaffirm our commitment to a comprehensive forward-looking defense partnership with India as a central pillar of our approach to the Indo-Pacific region.”

He said the two had discussed opportunities to elevate the U.S.-India major defense partnership, which he called “a priority” of the Biden-Harris administration. “And we’ll do that through regional security cooperation and military to military interactions and defense trade.”

Indian Defense Minister Singh said the talks had focused on expanding military-to-military engagement. “We are determined to realize the full potential of comprehensive global strategic partnership,” he said. He also urged U.S. industry to invest in India’s defense sector.

Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) interacts with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh during a joint media briefing in New Delhi, March 20, 2021.
Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L) interacts with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh during a joint media briefing in New Delhi, March 20, 2021.

Austin’s visit to New Delhi comes a week after the leaders of the United States, India, Australia and Japan pledged to work together in the face of challenges from China at the first summit meeting of the grouping known as the Quad.

India is strategically situated in the Indo-Pacific region, which is emerging as an area of concern for countries worried about China’s assertiveness. Last November, New Delhi hosted joint naval drills between the four Quad countries in the Indian Ocean.

In New Delhi, a nine-month-long military standoff with China in the Himalayas sparked by deadly clashes last June along their disputed border has heightened tensions with its Asian neighbor. Although the two have pulled back troops, the deep strain in ties with China has prompted New Delhi to accelerate the pace of strengthening ties with the United States and other Quad partners.

Austin also met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Following the meeting, the Indian leader said on Twitter that “India and U.S. are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good.”

Prior to his India visit, Austin had visited Japan and South Korea, two of America’s most important allies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Analysts in New Delhi say Austin’s stop in India is significant.

“It underscores that the Biden administration is continuing to focus on China,” according to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a distinguished fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. “And the fact that India is part of his first overseas visit means that New Delhi is an important element in the web of security partnerships that the Biden administration will be looking to nurture in this part of the world.”