Fighter jets, drones, Afghanistan on Mattis' agenda in India

US Defence Secretary's visit to key ally will focus on several areas including security of Afghanistan

NEW DELHI • Fighter jets, drone deals and shared concerns over Afghanistan's security look set to dominate the agenda when United States Defence Secretary James Mattis visits India this week.

Mr Mattis is scheduled to arrive late today and is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new defence minister, in the first visit by a top US official since Mr Donald Trump became President in January. "The United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia," a Pentagon statement said.

Mr Trump and Mr Modi met in June in Washington and the visit by Mr Mattis is a sign "the political leadership in both countries place defence cooperation as a top priority", Dr Mukesh Aghi, president of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, told Agence France-Presse.

Delhi and Washington share concerns about Afghanistan, with Mr Trump announcing a new strategy for the war-torn country last month, which cleared the way for the deployment of thousands more US troops.

The President has urged India to increase assistance to Afghanistan's economy, and has lambasted Delhi's arch-rival Pakistan for offering a safe haven to "agents of chaos".

Mr Mattis "will express US appreciation for India's important contributions towards Afghanistan's democracy, stability, prosperity and security", the Pentagon said.

Experts are not expecting any Indian boots on the ground, though there may be some role for Indian military expertise in supporting the US-led training and advisory mission with Afghan security forces.

Experts are not expecting any Indian boots on the ground, though there may be some role for Indian military expertise in supporting the US-led training and advisory mission with Afghan security forces.

India has long vied with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, building dams, roads and a new Parliament in the troubled country. Last year, it offered some US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) in aid.

India has long vied with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, building dams, roads and a new Parliament in the troubled country. Last year, it offered some US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) in aid. Delhi frequently accuses Islamabad of stirring up violence in Afghanistan and harbouring militant groups.

Last year, the US designated India a "Major Defence Partner" with the aim of increasing military cooperation and cutting red tape to ease defence deals.

Mr Mattis is likely to seek to persuade India to buy Lockheed Martin's F-16 Block 70 aircraft in a deal potentially worth US$15 billion. Lockheed Martin has offered the most upgraded version of the jet fighter to India, the world's largest weapons importer.

India has said it needs at least 100 single-engine fighters to counter the growing air threat posed by China and Pakistan. US giant Boeing has also offered to set up a plant in India for production of its F/A 18 Super Hornet aircraft if it wins a deal.

A drone deal for the Indian Navy will also likely be up for discussion, a source familiar with the negotiations told AFP.

Many commentators have said that US-India cooperation is crucial to countering an increasingly assertive China, which has been developing its military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific.

But Afghanistan will be front and centre when Mr Mattis meets Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who will host her highest-level foreign delegation since being appointed earlier this month. The visit comes as the Indian army takes part in a two-week joint military training exercise in the US.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Fighter jets, drones, Afghanistan on Mattis' agenda in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe