After ending the two “2+2” talks in Japan and South Korea, U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin arrived in India on the evening of the 19th, opening a three-day visit. The Indian newspaper The Print said on the 19th, “Austin’s visit will focus on China and deeper U.S.-India ties, not military orders”. According to the Hindustan Times, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met briefly with Austin on the evening of the 19th, who will also hold talks with Indian Defense Minister Singh, Foreign Minister S. JAISHANKAR and National Security Adviser Doval.
The Indian mainstream media generally interpreted the political significance of Austin’s visit in a high-profile manner, saying that his visit to India within two months of assuming office as Defense Minister and including India in his first trip abroad fully demonstrated the strong bilateral relations under the Biden Administration. The Hindustan Times quoted sources as saying on the 19th that the focus of Modi and Austin’s talks would be on the India-China border issue, regional terrorism and further consolidation of India-US defense ties. The Print said the focus of Austin’s talks with Indian Defense Minister Singh on Saturday will be on the India-China border issue and deepening of India-U.S. bilateral and multilateral cooperation, “not on multibillion-dollar military agreements.”
Vikram Singh, a senior adviser to the U.S.-India Forum for Strategy and Partnership, was quoted by Indian newspaper Toras on the 18th as saying that the U.S. and India are now aligned on strategic issues, “particularly in dealing with the rise of China and defending the free flow of goods and services” in the Indo-Pacific. But he also admitted that India’s purchase of the S-400 air defense missile system from Russia underscores the considerable challenges that remain in security cooperation between the two countries. On the eve of Austin’s visit to India, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Menendez sent a public letter to Austin asking him to pressure India on the “S-400 military purchase case” or he would sanction India. He also cited the Indian government’s crackdown on journalists, dissidents and farmers’ protests in the letter, hoping Austin would express concern over India’s “deteriorating democracy.
An unnamed Indian source told the Huan Qiu shi Bao that the core mission of Austin’s visit was to “consolidate and deepen bilateral defense ties” and discuss how to achieve cooperation among like-minded Indo-Pacific partners in the “post-epidemic era. “This is very important and urgent after India and the United States have completed all the basic defense agreements”, he said. He also said another focus of their talks was Afghanistan. According to the Trump Administration’s timetable for the deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. forces will be completed by May this year, and the Biden Administration’s reservations notwithstanding, the delay, if any, will not be long. In this context, both India and the United States are willing to have in-depth exchanges on this issue. For India, avoiding a spillover of terrorism into South Asia after the withdrawal of U.S. troops is a central concern. There are also reports that India is looking to buy 30 MQ-9 Predator drones from the United States.
“Austin heads to India with a new China playbook,” Nikkei Asia wrote in an article so titled.
“India is not a formal U.S. ally”, but “given the current tensions with China, this may be a mere formality. Lalwani, Director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank, said the trip was intended to show that India is second only to its most important Asian allies (Japan and South Korea) in terms of importance to the U.S. “It will be worth seeing if there are signs of intensification of relations between the two countries after the visit. The Pentagon has sent clear signals that Austin’s trip will also be used to study the deployment of U.S. forces in the region. But Atlantic Council scholar Shua Nawaz is skeptical. He said that militarily, India cannot fully support U.S. efforts to contain China’s maritime and land operations, or risk becoming a U.S. “vassal”; and that India’s “trade and economic dependence on China” will help resolve border disputes.