Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his United States counterpart Lloyd Austin engaged in wide-ranging talks held on Saturday that focussed on further expansion of bilateral strategic ties, evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region, and challenges of terrorism.
US defense secretary Austin who is on a three-nation overseas tour arrived in India on Friday. The visit is being considered a reflection of the Joe Biden administration's strong commitment to its relations with its close allies and partners in the region.
India and the US on Saturday resolved to further expand their global defense and security cooperation including military-to-military engagement, information sharing, logistics support as both sides vowed to work for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.
After talks with Austin, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said the two sides agreed to pursue enhanced cooperation between the Indian military and the US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and Africa Command.
"I am happy to inform that I had a comprehensive and fruitful discussion with Secretary Austin and his delegation. We are keen to work together to realise the full potential of the India-US comprehensive global strategic partnership," Singh said in his statement to the media.
Referring to Indo-US foundational agreements on defence ties, he said both sides discussed steps to be taken to realise the full potential of pacts such as LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) for mutual benefit.
Singh also said the recent summit of leaders of India, the US, Japan, and Australia under the Quad framework emphasized the resolve to maintain a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.
In his comments, Secretary Austin reaffirmed the commitment by the US to a comprehensive and forward-looking defence partnership with India as a "central pillar" of its approach to the region.
He also described the India-US relationship as a "stronghold" of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
"Singh and I had a very productive discussion...I wanted to convey the Biden-Harris administration's message about our strong commitment to our allies and partners," he said.
Austin added that India is an increasingly important partner in today's rapidly changing international dynamics.
On Saturday morning, Austin visited the National War Memorial and paid tributes to India's fallen heroes. Before the talks, he was given a guard of honour at the Vigyan Bhavan complex.
The US defense secretary called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and held talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval hours after his arrival in Delhi on Friday.
In his meeting with Modi, he conveyed the Biden administration's strong desire to further deepen strategic ties with India to address the pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific.
Almost all key issues of mutual concerns, including China's aggressive behaviour in the region, are learnt to have figured in the deliberations between Austin and Doval.
"Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defense partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region," Austin tweeted on Friday.
Thrilled to be here in India. The breadth of cooperation between our two nations reflects the significance of our major defense partnership, as we work together to address the most pressing challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region. pic.twitter.com/0wA88ERrDn— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) March 19, 2021
People familiar with the US official's visit said earlier that 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 USD 3 billion is expected to figure in Austin-Singh talks.
The Indo-US defence ties have been on an upswing in the last few years.
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 of each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies as well as provides for deeper cooperation.
The two sides have also signed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 that provides for interoperability between the two militaries and provides for sale of high end technology from the US to India.
In October last year, India and the US sealed the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) agreement to further boost bilateral defence ties.
The pact provides for sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps between the two countries.
(With inputs from PTI)