File photo of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin | Photo by Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images via Bloomberg
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New Delhi: Amid the impending meet of the four leaders of the ‘Quad’ countries, which is likely to be held soon, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin will be visiting India this month, ThePrint has learnt.

The visit will be taking place keeping in mind the Joe Biden administration’s larger foreign policy focus in which the Indo-Pacific strategic initiative plays a key role and hence his deepening of ties with India is important, according to highly-placed official sources.

The sources also said the new US Secretary of Defense will most likely be visiting other Indo-Pacific countries too after his India visit, which is going to be his first stop.

In India, Austin will be meeting his Indian counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while a meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also on the cards.

The visit assumes greater significance in the wake of the fact that the Quad leaders — US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Prime Minister Narendra Modi — will be holding their first-ever meet on a virtual platform giving the grouping a formal shape. The meeting will be happening at the behest of Washington. 

Austin’s visit will be happening at a time when Indian and Chinese troops are working towards a complete disengagement and de-escalation process to put an end to the ongoing border standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, which began in April-May 2020.

Singh and Austin have already spoken over the phone since the latter took charge in January. 


Also read: Better US-India ties is bad news for Pakistan. Expect lip service on Kashmir, no aid


US to take stock of pending defence deals with India

The sources said while discussions will centre around Indo-Pacific during Austin’s visit, the US will also take stock of the pending defence deals with India as it will try to push for signing of the big-ticket deals.

“This is his first visit to India and that too quickly after being sworn in. Of course, there will be shop talks, but you will have to look at it from a wider point, which includes China, Afghanistan and strategic issues in the Asia Pacific,” a source said when asked about the significance of the visit.

The US is in talks with India for possible sale of fighters for the Indian Air Force and the Navy, besides unmanned aerial systems and mid-air refuellers.

While the IAF is looking at 114 fighter jets, the Navy has scaled down its demand from 57 fighters to just 34 at the moment.

India is looking at both armed and unarmed unmanned systems from the US.

Focus on stability of Indo-US relations

Sources said the big focus during Austin’s visit will be stability of the Indo-US relations and further cooperation.

India is also likely to be pitching for a complete waiver of the sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for the Russian S-400 air defence systems, lease of a nuclear submarine and other key projects.

The CAATSA was introduced by the former Donald Trump administration.

New Delhi had earlier told the Trump administration that deals with Russia are important since the forces use Russian equipment to a large extent and also that its relations with other countries are guided by its own vision and not of a third nation.

On Thursday, the US released the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, in which US President Biden called for deepening America’s partnership with India. 

In June 2016, the US had designated India as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ and both countries have also put in place the basic defence pacts — LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) in 2016, COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018 and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) in 2020 — that are aimed at taking the defence partnership between both the countries to the next level.


Also read: Trump or Biden? Doesn’t matter to India-US ties as they’re in a full, strategic embrace


 

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