In what she termed “substantive, constructive and forward-looking talks” in New Delhi on Tuesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her US counterpart, Defense Secretary James Mattis, pressed all the right buttons in affirming a growing common ground between Washington and New Delhi.
“From our discussions today, I am confident that we are entering a new phase in our strategic defence partnership with the United States,” said Sitharaman.
In talks that went on for half an hour longer than scheduled, the two sides discussed military-to-military engagements and exercises; supply of high-tech US weaponry to India; curbing cross-border terrorism, especially emanating from Pakistan; and the regional issues of Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific.
One of Mattis’ major objectives on this trip was to understand New Delhi’s response to President Donald Trump’s call last month for India to provide more “economic assistance and development” to Afghanistan.
At a media briefing by the two defence ministers after their dialogue, Sitharaman rejected the idea of sending Indian military troops to fight in Afghanistan. She said that during the talks she had “made it very clear that there shall not be boots from India on the ground”. Instead, Sitharaman pointed to India’s long-running developmental support to Afghanistan by building dams, hospitals, schools and institutions, including a new Parliament building in Kabul. She highlighted training and medical facilities provided to Afghans in India. “India’s contribution has been on these grounds and we shall expand if necessary,” said Sitharaman.
The two sides also discussed what Sitharaman flagged as “the growing menace of cross-border terrorism”, specifically that emanating from Pakistan. Mattis declared: “There can be no safe havens anywhere in the world for terrorism. We intend to work closely with India, and like-minded nations, as we eradicate this.”
On whether she had specifically raised the issue of terrorists being given safe haven in Pakistan, Sitharaman pointed out that Mattis had told Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their meeting that “the very same forces which find safe haven in Pakistan have been the ones who hit at New York as much as Mumbai”.
She revealed she requested Mattis that “[I]f and when, he would visit Pakistan, he would be able to speak out on these issues and take them up [with the Pakistani leadership]”.
With Washington encouraged by New Delhi’s assertiveness during the Doklam stand-off with China, there was close agreement on stepping up cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. “India supports freedom of navigation, over-flight and unimpeded lawful commerce. We also believe that disputes should be resolved through peaceful means and in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law. I am happy to note that Secretary Mattis reaffirmed the US position in support of these principles,” said Sitharaman.
Mattis spelt out a vision of what India could expect from its designation by the US last year as a “major defense partner”. He said the designation “recognises India as a pillar of regional stability and security, and reflects our desire for a long-term strategic partnership in the 21st century”.
While security would be “one of the key strategic pillars” in the wide-ranging new relationship; Mattis said his goal was “delivering defense interoperability aligned with Prime Minister Modi’s and President Trump’s direction.”
“Expanding maritime engagement is one of my top priorities,” said Mattis, indicating that the navy-to-navy relationship would remain a key driver of defence cooperation. He particularly highlighted the Annual Maritime Security Dialogue as a mechanism for developing a shared understanding of challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.
While specific defence sales were not highlighted, the two sides discussed deepening the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). “We look forward to sharing some of our most advanced defence technologies through the DTTI,” said Mattis.