New Delhi: India and the US on Thursday etched a new chapter in bilateral relations, signalling a deepening of their defence and strategic partnership with the signing of a pact that allows India access to the latest in US technologies.

The two sides also said hotlines would be set up between the Indian defence minister and her US counterpart and the Indian foreign minister and her US counterpart. They agreed to hold a tri-services exercise next year between their forces, increase information-sharing on terrorists and upgrade interaction between the Indian military and the US military’s Central Command that deals with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

These decisions were taken at the first ever India-US “2+2" dialogue in New Delhi, which brought together India’s foreign and defence ministers, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US defence secretary James Mattis.

The format was first agreed to last year, during a visit to the US by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a meeting with US President Donald Trump. It represents a significant upgradation in ties given that the US has a dialogue at such a level with only close allies Japan and Australia. India, on the other hand, has “2+2" dialogues at the secretary level with Japan and Australia and announced such talks with South Korea recently.

However, the significant event on Thursday was the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, which is one the four foundational agreements that the US signs with allies and close partners to facilitate interoperability between militaries. The pact signed on Thursday is an India-specific version that allows New Delhi to procure encrypted communication systems from the US for military platforms like the C-17, C-130 and P-8Is. The pact “will facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms," according to a joint statement.

Swaraj said India and the US “agreed to work together to secure India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at the earliest."

With the 2008 Mumbai attacks marking a decade this year, “we recognized the importance of justice and retribution for the masterminds behind this terrorist attack", Swaraj said, adding that India supported Trump’s South Asia Policy that calls for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-border terrorism.

On the US Congress considering a raft of bills looking at cutting the numbers of the H-1B visas used extensively by Indian software professionals, Swaraj said she hoped the US would implement a “non-discriminatory" and “predictable" visa regime “given its high impact on innovation, competitiveness and people-to-people partnership".

Pompeo said the “2+2" talks were “forward looking." The US would continue to practise “partnership economics with India and other countries" in the region, he said, adding that he hoped a pact would be finalized with Westinghouse for it to supply nuclear power plants to India.

Pompeo added that “India and the United States...should continue to ensure the freedom of the seas and the skies; uphold the peaceful resolution of territorial maritime disputes; promote market-based economics; support good governance, fundamental rights, and liberties; and prevent external economic coercion."

India and the US would continue discussions on New Delhi reducing oil imports from Iran, said people familiar with the developments. The US was also not likely to raise objections to India buying the S-400 air defence system from Russia, one of the people mentioned above said.

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