|Lloyd Austin and Rajnath Singh Photograph:( WION )|
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will meet his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh next week in India and discuss ways to operationalise the major defence partnership that the two countries have, according to a top Pentagon official.
The Indo-US defence ties have been on an upswing in the last few years and in June 2016, the US had designated India a "major defence partner".
The two countries have also inked key defence and security pacts over the past few years, including the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 that allows their militaries use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies as well as provides for deeper cooperation.
Austin will be in India next week, after his stops in Japan and South Korea. This is for the first time that a US defence secretary is travelling to India on his maiden overseas trip. It will also be the first in-person visit by a top official of the Biden administration to India.
"In India, he'll meet with Minister Rajnath Singh and others to discuss operationalising the major defence partnership that we have with India, including through enhanced information sharing, regional security cooperation, defence trade, and cooperation in new domains," Acting Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David F Helvey told reporters during a conference call.
In New Delhi, the Ministry of Defence said US Secretary of Defence Austin will visit India from March 19 to 21.
India, he said, is an important strategic partnership that involves cooperation with like minded nations committed to protecting the rules-based international order.
Helvey said that the travel to India, will provide an opportunity for exchange of views early on with key allies and partners about how they can work together and expand cooperation to support a rules-based international order, and continue developments of these critical relationships which enable them to do that.
Austin's visit to India will take place a week after the maiden virtual Quad summit between US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
The four leaders in a joint statement on Friday said that they brought diverse perspectives and were united in a shared vision for the free and open Indo-Pacific. "We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion," the statement said.
The Biden administration has made clear the criticality that attaches to promoting peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond through engaging with and investing in alliances and partnerships; and strengthening our foundation at home to maintain our innovation edge and to rebuild the industrial base, Helvey said.
India, the US and several other world powers have been talking about the need to ensure a free, open and thriving Indo-Pacific in the backdrop of China's rising military manoeuvring in the region. The Chinese military is also actively eying the strategic Indian Ocean region to step up Beijing influence.
China claims nearly all of the disputed South China Sea, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it. Beijing has built artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea.
In 2017, India, Australia, Japan and the US gave shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the 'Quad' or the Quadrilateral coalition to counter China's aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.
"The upcoming trips by the Secretaries of State and Defence signal the importance of our alliance and partner relationships, which are a real force multiplier in advancing our shared interests in the United States commitment to a rules-based international order, an order that places all nations on a level playing field and holds them responsible for preserving the principles that underpin it," he said.
The Department of Defence, he said, is committed to upholding a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and pursue economic opportunity, resolve disputes without coercion, and have the freedom to navigate and fly consistent with international rules and norms.