US defence secretary visits India to discuss ways to counter Chinese threat
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin has met his Indian counterpart to discuss increasing co-operation as both countries grapple with China’s economic rise and increased belligerence.
Mr Austin’s visit comes as India strengthens its domestic defence industry by acquiring new technology and reducing reliance on imports, particularly from Russia, its largest supplier of military hardware despite the war in Ukraine.
Mr Austin and Rajnath Singh explored ways of building resilient supply chains, a statement from India’s Defence Ministry said.
They decided “to identify opportunities for the co-development of new technologies and co-production of existing and new systems and facilitate increased collaboration between defence start-up ecosystems of the two countries”.
They also discussed regional security issues given their shared interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, the ministry said.
“I’m returning to India to meet with key leaders for discussions about strengthening our Major Defence Partnership. Together, we’re advancing a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Mr Austin tweeted after his arrival in New Delhi on Sunday.
Mr Austin, who is on his second visit to India, was expected to lay the groundwork for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington on June 22, which has fuelled speculation about a possible announcement of defence contracts.
India is looking to buy 18 armed high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for an estimated 1.5 billion to 2 billion dollars (£1.2-1.6bn), said Rahul Bedi, a defence analyst.
The UAVs would likely be deployed along its restive borders with China and Pakistan and in the strategic Indian Ocean region, Mr Bedi said.
Indian media reports said a joint production and manufacture of combat aircraft engines, infantry combat vehicles, howitzers and their precision ordnance were discussed last month in Washington at a meeting of the US-India Defence Policy Group.
Mr Austin arrived in New Delhi from Singapore, where he attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual forum bringing together top defence officials, diplomats and leaders.
Mr Austin lobbied for support for Washington’s vision of a “free, open, and secure Indo-Pacific within a world of rules and rights” as the best course to counter increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region.
China’s defence minister Li Shangfu said at the conference that the US has been “deceiving and exploiting” Asia-Pacific nations to advance its own self-interests to preserve “its dominant position”.
Mr Li suggested that Washington has been holding on to alliances that are “remnants of the Cold War” and establishing new pacts, like the Aukus agreement with Britain and Australia and the Quad grouping with Australia, India and Japan, “to divide the world into ideologically-driven camps and provoke confrontation”.
India is trying a balancing act in its ties with Washington and Moscow, and has been reducing its dependence on Russian arms by also buying from the US, France, Germany and other countries.
Experts say up to 60% of Indian defence equipment comes from Russia, and New Delhi finds itself in a bind at a time when it is facing a three-year-old border stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh, where tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed within shooting distance.
Twenty Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops died in a clash in 2020.