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NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper are in New Delhi on Monday for the third India-US “2+2" Ministerial dialogue amid tensions between India and China on the border and Washington’s attempts to forge a common front to take on an aggressive Beijing.

The “2+2" Ministerial dialogue is the last major event on the diplomatic calendar of India and the US as well as for Washington, before the US goes in for presidential polls on 3 November. Issues expected to be on the agenda at the talks are regional security cooperation, defence information sharing, military-to-military interactions and defence trade. The first “2+2" talks were held in New Delhi in 2018 with the second round being held in the US in December last year.

"Wheels up for my trip to India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Grateful for the opportunity to connect with our partners to promote a shared vision for a free and open #IndoPacific composed of independent, strong, and prosperous nations," Pompeo said in a Twitter post as he departed on his four nation Asia tour.

Pompeo and Esper are set to hold separate bilateral meetings with their counterparts – Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh – on Monday. While Singh’s meeting with Esper is scheduled for 3:15 pm, Jaishankar will hold talks with Pompeo at 7 pm at Hyderabad House. The two Indian ministers will also host their respective counterparts to dinner, a person privy to the programmes of the two said.

On Tuesday, Pompeo and Esper are first expected to visit the National War Memorial before heading to Hyderabad House for the “2+2" discussions.

The centerpiece of the visit by the two US secretaries is expected to be the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) agreement to further boost bilateral defence ties. The pact is expected to allow India and the US to share – in real time -- precision satellite and topographical data from the US’ array of military satellites. This is expected to prove useful for a variety of reasons including the precision delivery or targeting of hostile positions.

"We have made significant progress towards concluding the last foundational defence enabling agreement - the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement or BECA," senior officials of the Trump administration told reporters on Saturday during an online news briefing.

"This agreement will allow for expanded geospatial information sharing between our Armed Forces. We are also seeking to expand secure communication capabilities between our respective militaries as well as between our foreign defence ministries and that figures prominently in what we are trying to accomplish in the information-sharing space," one of the officials said.

Though India has been circumspect about the issues on the table, it is expected that India’s border tensions with China would be discussed between the two sides. Speaking to reporters last week, Pompeo had said: “On every stop I will discuss a broad range of bilateral topics but also work to find out what each of those countries the best ways we can make sure that we cooperate to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific."

“I’m also sure that my meetings will also include discussions on how free nations can work together to thwart the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party," Pompeo said of his stops in New Delhi, Colombo, Male and Jakarta.

The US has its own set of issues with China – frictions over trade and the origins and spread of the novel coronavirus that has roiled the US economy being two key problems. US president Donald Trump and Pompeo have often described the coronavirus as the “China virus" and “Wuhan virus" in a bid to pin responsibility on Beijing for the pandemic that has killed more than 1.15 million people worldwide.

Last week, speaking at the Washington based Atlantic Council think-tank, Esper had described New Delhi as the most important partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific noting that India faces Chinese aggression every day.

“India will well be the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in the century," he said. Indians “face-off every day, the Chinese aggression in the Himalayas, specifically along that line of actual control," he had added separately.

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