US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives in India on Friday to bolster military ties between the two countries in the first high-level visit since Joe Biden’s election as president.

Austin lands in New Delhi exactly a week after the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the so-called “quad”, an alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia created in 2007 in response to Beijing’s military build-up. The proximity of the two events underscores the importance, according to experts, that Biden attaches to the region.

With no official agenda yet available, Austin will meet with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, (tentatively on Saturday) and other Indian security officials, according to a US Department of Defense pre-visit note. Austin’s stated goal is to “deepen the U.S.-India core defence partnership and advance cooperation between our countries for a free, prosperous and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean region.

India-US military ties against China

It is a mantra repeated by US officials as they strive to form a buffer block to the perceived expansionist desires in the region of Beijing, whose relationship with Washington deteriorated dramatically during Donald Trump’s presidency.

New Delhi is the latest stop on Austin’s diplomatic tour, which, along with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, has taken in Japan and South Korea with an agenda that also includes China. In fact, Blinken is not visiting India because of his participation on Thursday in Alaska in the first meeting of the Biden era between White House and Beijing officials.

India-US contact mission

In the view of Society for Policy Studies think-tank director C. Uday Bhaskar, Austin’s visit is a get acquainted between the relatively new Biden administration and the Narendra Modi government.

“He is on a familiarisation mission (…) and in that sense, I think it is a preliminary way of taking stock of bilateral defence relations,” Bhaskar told Efe. Defence relations between the two countries have grown in recent years, especially since Washington granted the Asian country the special status of “major defence partner” in 2016.

At the same time, India’s tension with China has been growing and is not limited to the sea, but is also involved in a border dispute in the Himalayas, which last June saw its worst escalation in decades, with the death of at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers in a clash.

US arms sales to India

The signing of new agreements between India and the US, the latest in late 2020 committing the two sides to exchange satellite data, open the door for New Delhi to acquire high-tech equipment and more joint military exercises.

“India is an arms importing country, and this is also an important aspect, because for the US military-industrial complex, arms sales are very important,” Bhaskar recalled.

According to a report published this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India is one of the world’s largest arms importers, although between 2016 and 2020 its volume of purchases fell by 33 per cent compared to the previous four years.

Indian defence analyst Sameer Patil of the Gateway House think tank said Austin’s visit could formalise the purchase of armed drones. “India had sent a request to the US and the Trump administration approved the request, but the Indian armed forces did not have the funds to pay for the drones. It seems they have now raised the resources and are willing to go ahead with the purchase,” he explained.

Foreign policy differences between India and the US

In Patil’s view, this growing closeness between Washington and New Delhi is not without its complications. “The negative implication is that by aligning itself with the US, India could become embroiled in issues on which it has a different line of thinking,” he said.

India must consider that China is a neighbouring country, unlike the US, and Washington has maintained a hard line on Iran under the Trump administration as opposed to the more restrained New Delhi.

Another stumbling block in India-US relations could be the Asian country’s purchase of an S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system from Russia in 2018, according to Patil, which should be delivered by the end of the year.

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