Ways to further strengthen India-US strategic ties, boosting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness and the Afghan peace process are expected to be the key focus areas in talks between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and US Defence Secretary Lloyd J Austin on Saturday, people familiar with the development said Thursday. Secretary Austin is scheduled to arrive in Delhi late Friday afternoon as part of his first overseas trip that also took him to Japan and South Korea.
The US Defence Secretary is expected to meet National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
His visit to India, also first by a top member of President Joe Biden''s cabinet, came days after the top leadership of the Quad grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia vowed to expand their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
Cooperation under bilateral and Quad framework is expected to be discussed in the talks, said the people cited above.
Ahead of the high-profile visit, Senator Robert Menendez, the Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Austin, urging him to take up with Indian leaders the issue of New Delhi procuring Russian S-400 missile defence system.
In October 2018, India signed a USD 5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems, notwithstanding a warning from the Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions.
Recently, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America''s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia.
On March 10, the defence ministry said India and the US are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges and common interests in maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific during Austin''s visit.
The evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific region in the wake of China''s increasing military muscle flexing has become a major talking point among leading global powers.
The US has been favouring making Quad a security architecture to check China''s growing assertiveness.
The visit is also taking place at a time when India and China are looking to achieve the objective of disengagement from all friction points in eastern Ladakh after completing withdrawal of troops in the North and South banks of Pangong lake areas.
Austin and Singh had a telephonic conversation on January 27.
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 to use 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.