Lloyd Austin is first US Secretary of Defence to include India on his maiden trip abroad. His visit begins Friday, and he’s set to meet PM Modi, Rajnath, Jaishankar, and NSA Doval

New Delhi: China’s aggression and deeper India-US bilateral and multilateral cooperation will be the focus of Saturday’s meeting between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the visiting US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, not multi-billion dollar military deals.

Sources in the defence and security establishment said Austin, who is arriving in New Delhi Friday evening after going to Japan and South Korea as part of his first overseas visit, will be given a Guard of Honour on the South Block lawns before he holds talks with Rajnath Singh.

Austin, the first US Secretary of Defence to include India on his maiden foreign trip, is also set to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, while a meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is also on the cards.

Earlier this month, the US had released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, in which President Joe Biden had called for deepening America’s partnership with India.

What Will And Won’t Be On The Table

Singh and Austin will talk one-on-one initially Saturday morning, and will be joined later by delegation members. The Indian delegation is set to consist of Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and other senior officials, besides Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat, Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh, Army chief Gen. M.M. Naravane and Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria.

Asked if any deals are likely to be signed, a source said: “Shop-talk is not going to be the focus, even though there are some projects that will come under discussion. This is Lloyd Austin’s maiden visit to India, and is part of his visit to the region. The focus is to get to know each other and see how the defence and strategic cooperation can be carried forward amid continued aggression by China in the region and beyond.”

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

The source said besides bilateral, the focus will also be on multilateral cooperation.

The US’ 3 March document had identified an “increasingly assertive” China and “destabilising” Russia as the main adversaries confronting the US, but made it clear that the former was the more consequential of the two.

Austin’s visit comes close on the heels of the first-ever Quad summit, during which Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the grouping had come of age and would remain an important pillar of stability in the region.

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

India is also likely to pitch for a complete waiver of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), introduced by the Donald Trump administration, for the Russian S-400 air defence systems, leasing a nuclear submarine and other key projects.

A top American Senator had urged Austin to take up the issue of India’s plan to purchase Russian S-400 missile defence systems and concerns on human rights issues during his visit.

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