- Timing of visit, which follows stops in Japan and South Korea and heavy criticism of China, signals importance Biden places on New Delhi as a security ally
- US will be keen to take ties to a new level, analysts say, but India is likely to resist being dragged into a coalition against its fellow BRICS nation
will warmly receive US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday in a sign of their strengthening defence ties, analysts say New Delhi will be careful to signal that it is not forming a coalition against China
. Austin's three-day trip to New Delhi, where he will call on Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and other senior national security leaders, will come hot on the heels of a US-China
meeting in Alaska on Thursday that has been described as testy and ill-tempered. During the face-off in Alaska between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan on the US side, and China's most senior foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, and foreign minister Wang Yi on the other, Beijing accused Washington of inciting countries "to attack China", while the United States said China had "arrived intent on grandstanding".
The US also expressed concerns over Chinese policies in Xinjiang
, Hong Kong, and Taiwan
, as well as cyber attacks on the US and the "economic coercion of our allies", all of which it said threatened "the rules-based order that maintains global stability". Meanwhile, China accused Washington of using its military might and financial supremacy to suppress other countries.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia
at the Washington-based Wilson Center said discussions in India were likely to focus on increasing military-to-military cooperation, and how this could be taken to the next level "beyond the arms sales and defence agreements that have dominated the security relationship for years". As India eyes US military deal, neutrality on China takes back seat.
The timing of the visit – and the fact that Austin is in India after going to Japan
and South Korea
as part of the first overseas trip by a member of US President Joe Biden's
cabinet – is more significant than any outcome of talks in New Delhi, said Kugelman. "This signals to India, and to common rivals like China, that the Biden administration values its security relationship with New Delhi in a big way," said Kugelman.
Austin was accompanied by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the Tokyo and Seoul legs of the trip, where the United States
criticised China for its "coercion and aggression", including in its expansive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. While Blinken's counterpart in Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi agreed that China's behaviour was "destabilising" and "inconsistent with the international order", South Korea's
Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong did not mention China, a reflection of how it – like most Asian countries – has to carefully balance relations with its largest trade partner.
Jawaharlal Nehru University's Swaran Singh, a professor in international studies, said India did not want to take sides or be pushed towards "so-called anti-China forces", adding that the recent agreement by Beijing and New Delhi to pull back troops from one section of their disputed border meant India would not feel compelled to align itself with the US.
India was preparing to host the next BRICS summit – involving Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – later this year so it would be restrained and "carefully calibrate any statements so as not to further complicate India-China relations
", said Singh.
'MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER BEFORE'
Last October, Delhi and Washington signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which, along with the two agreements signed earlier – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – completes what is commonly described as a troika of "foundational pacts" for deep military cooperation between the two countries.
Under BECA, India will receive real-time access to American intelligence that will increase the accuracy of automated systems and weapons like missiles and armed drones.
COMCASA, signed in 2018, allows India to receive encrypted communications equipment and systems from the US so that both military commanders, aircraft and ships can communicate through secure networks.
LEMOA, signed in 2016, allows the two militaries to replenish from each other's bases, and access supplies, spare parts and services from each other's land facilities, airbases, and ports.
Yogesh Joshi, research fellow in the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said Austin's visit would focus on the "consolidation of these agreements and their operationalisation".
He added that defence trade would also be high on Austin's agenda, pointing out that Delhi had bought almost US$21 billion worth of defence equipment from the US since 2008. While the India-China border tensions
had calmed slightly, Beijing's growing naval presence in waters that are India's traditional sphere of influence meant India would still seek to increase its capabilities to counter China, with the help of the US.
"Today, India needs the US more than at any time in its history," Joshi said.
"The range of US defence equipment now in the inventory of the Indian military was visible during last year's build-up on the border with China," he added
Recently, India announced the purchase of US$3 billion worth of armed Predator drones, or medium-altitude aircraft for performing surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
But India's purchase of high-end defence equipment from the US has also created problems for its defence relationship with Russia
For instance, in 2017 the US imposed sanction on countries sourcing Russian defence equipment under CAATSA, or Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
"One of the major issues for New Delhi would be to find a way out of these sanctions whenever Russia delivers the S-400 missile defence systems to New Delhi," Joshi said, referring to the Russian-developed anti-aircraft weapon system.
Wilson Center's Kugelman said that since Afghanistan
was a pressing issue for Washington, Austin might make a pitch to India on how it could contribute to the peace process. Timothy Heath, senior international defence researcher at the Rand Corporation, said while the US was eager to reduce its presence in the country, India favoured a continued American presence to promote stability.
"A possible compromise might be for the US to delay the withdrawal of some troops," Heath said, referring to a deal reached in February last year between the Taliban and the Donald Trump
administration that all foreign troops would be withdrawn from the country by May 1. A full US withdrawal in Afghanistan would result in the Taliban playing a larger role in Afghan politics, an unappealing prospect to India as its assets in the war-torn country have often been targeted by the Haqqani group, a major Taliban faction.
Analysts said they would be watching for Beijing's reaction to Austin's meetings, with Rityusha Mani Tiwary, an assistant professor at the University of Delhi's Shaheed Bhagat Singh College saying the visit could affect Sino-Indian ties.
"Counter alliances may be expected on the part of China especially if India and the US take their military cooperation to a deeper level," Tiwary said.
On a recent threat by China's nationalistic tabloid Global Times
warning that India's "courtship" with the Quad would worsen India-China relations and affect the development of regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) spearheaded by China and the BRICS, Wilson Center's Kugelman said India could well find itself on a collision course with China when it comes to their roles in regional and global organisations.
"If China sees the Quad and Indo Pacific policies as an increasing threat, it may try to undercut India's role in the BRICS and SCO and other organizations where both countries are members," noted Kugelman, adding that this dynamic would also depend on broader India-China relations.
"If the relationship continues to struggle, then China would certainly have an incentive to push back against India in multilateral settings, and all bets would be off," Kugelman said.
Joshi said that to expect India to be mindful of the interests of regional organisations over those of Delhi's – implied in the Global Times'
threat – was "expecting too much from India".
"India embraced SCO and BRICS to provide for a multilateral world order when prospects of accommodation with Beijing were positive. When Beijing's actions suggested otherwise, India moved to the Quad. It is not as if only China can play the realpolitik game," Joshi added.