US Defence Secy Austin calls on PM Modi

NEW DELHI, MAR 19 (AGENCIES) | Publish Date: 3/19/2021 1:11:09 PM IST

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd James Austin III, who arrived in New Delhi for a three-day visit to India earlier on Friday, called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the latter’s office said in a press release.

Austin conveyed greetings of US President Joe Biden to Modi, said the PMO.

Modi “welcomed the warm and close relationship between the two countries, which is rooted in shared values of democracy, pluralism and commitment to a rules-based order”, said the release. The PMO said Modi also outlined his vision for the strategic partnership between the India and US, and emphasised the important role of bilateral defence cooperation.

Austin said the US government was committed to strengthening the bilateral defence relations between the two countries, and expressed US’s strong desire to further enhance the strategic partnership for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, said the release.

Later, Austin met with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, as well.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also extended his welcome to Austin. “Mr. Austin. Your visit to India is definitely going to further deepen the cooperation and partnership between India and the United States. Looking forward to our meeting tomorrow,” he said on Twitter.

India is the third stop for Austin during his three-nation first overseas tour as the Defence Secretary, and the visit is seen as a reflection of the Joe Biden administration’s strong commitment to its relations with its close allies and partners in the region. The US defence secretary visited Japan and South Korea before India.

The US official was received at the Palam airport by senior Indian military officials and diplomats from the American embassy. Ways to further accelerate India-US strategic ties, boosting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, China’s aggressive behaviour in eastern Ladakh, challenge of terrorism and the Afghan peace process are expected to be focus of the talks between the two sides, people familiar with Austin’s visit said.

They said India’s plan to procure around 30 multi-mission armed Predator drones from the US for the three services at an estimated cost of over $ 3 billion is also expected to figure in the talks. The medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) Predator-B drones, manufactured by US defence major General Atomics, are capable of remaining airborne for around 35 hours and can hunt down targets at land and sea, they said.

India’s plan to acquire 114 fighter jets at a cost of around $18 billion could also figure in the talks as American defence majors –Boeing and Lockheed -Martin– are eyeing it, the people said. Secretary Austin is set to have extensive talks with Rajnath Singh on Saturday. He is also likely to meet External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

His visit to India came days after the top leadership of the Quad grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia vowed to expand their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. Ahead of Austin’s visit, Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to the US Defence Secretary, urging him to take up with Indian leaders the issue of New Delhi procuring Russian S-400 missile defence system.

Though democracy and human rights issues do not come under the domain of the Pentagon, Menendez also urged Austin to raise these concerns with Indian leaders.

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