Washington: US defence secretary James Mattis will seek to take the India-US defence ties to the next level during his visit to India this week, with discussion on F-16s and the security situation in the region likely to dominate the agenda.
Firmly of the view that a stronger India – both in terms of military and economy – is in America’s national interest, Mattis would meet his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, national security advisor Ajit K Doval and also call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This is the first cabinet-level visit to India under the Trump administration. People familiar with the preparations of the visit told PTI that the trip would be used to develop new institutional mechanisms to elevate the status of India-US defense relationship, showcase enhanced strategic co-operation in Afghanistan and strengthen maritime security and rule of law in the Indo-Pacific region.
While no specific defence trade deal is likely to be announced during Mattis’ India visit on September 26-27, officials said there would be discussions on two specific proposals of F-16 and F-18A under Modi’s Make in India campaign, along with efforts to identify new projects under the ambitious Defence Technology and Trade Initiatives (DTTI).
The Trump administration wants to sell F-18 and F-16 fighter planes to India, built by American companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin respectively. Both companies have offered to assemble these planes in India.
Ahead of his visit, Mattis met Indian Ambassador to the US Navtej Sarna at the Pentagon. And in a rarest of the rare gesture, Mattis came down to the riverside entrance of the Pentagon to receive Sarna.
The Indian envoy said meeting was “very positive and cordial." And after the meeting, the Defense Secretary came down to see him off. This is also the first follow up visit by a US cabinet official after Modi’s June trip to the US.
During the visit, the two countries are expected to review the defence and strategic decisions taken by Modi and US President Donald Trump in June. During his India visit, Mattis is likely to talk with Sitharaman and other Indian leaders on the new Afghan strategy and the Indo-Pacific region.
Trump while announcing his new Afghan policy had asked India to do more to help Afghanistan with its developmental needs. According to officials, Mattis is interested in accelerating the pace of India-US defense co-operation and making it an effective tool in achieving the goal of peace and stability in the entire region ranging from South Asia to Indo-Pacific region.
Mattis, it is learnt, is taking along with him some of his own ideas in this regard, which he would like to discuss with the Indian leadership and get their feedback. And to take the relationship to the next level, including more exercise and sale of high-tech defence equipment, the Pentagon instead of the foundational agreements is now looking for some India specific documentation that would provide institutional mechanisms, address India’s concerns and meet the Congressional-mandated legislative requirements in this regard.
This could be seen as a major climbdown, as India had been resisting from signing any foundational agreements for the past several years because of sovereignty concerns. In his interaction with the Indian leaders, Mattis is also expected to discuss how to advance “major defense partnership", a designation given to India by the previous Obama administration which has been continued by the Trump administration.
Mattis’ India visit comes in less than a week after external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had her first bilateral meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session.