US Secretary of State Kerry presses for closer India trade, security ties

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shaking hands with India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj before the start of their meeting in New Delhi on Aug 30, 2016.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) shaking hands with India's Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj before the start of their meeting in New Delhi on Aug 30, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed on Tuesday (Aug 30) for more cooperation with India on security and trade as the world's two biggest democracies try to strengthen ties, in part to counter China's rising influence.

Kerry also said he was hopeful of moving ahead on a deal to provide nuclear energy assistance to India, as the nations seek to meet an ambitious goal of boosting annual trade fivefold to around US$500 billion (S$681 billion).

"I'm very, very confident that we will continue to strengthen what President Obama has called the defining partnership of the 21st century," Kerry said in New Delhi, adding that cooperation on trade and security has "room to be able to further grow".

He was speaking before chairing a "strategic and commercial dialogue" with his counterpart Sushma Swaraj, launched by the nations' leaders in 2015.

Kerry, who will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday during the two-day visit, said he wanted progress on an agreement about construction of nuclear reactors.

"We also hope to see our civil nuclear cooperation take shape in the form of new reactors that will deliver reliable electricity to tens of millions of Indian households," Kerry said.

The deal involving US giant Westinghouse has been held up in the past by concerns over an Indian law that would make US companies liable for accidents at plants they helped build.

Swaraj said she wanted to see closer military cooperation so that India could build more sophisticated hardware at home.

India, the world's biggest arms importer, wants access to US technology so it can develop better weapons - a key part of Modi's campaign to boost domestic manufacturing.

India has historically relied heavily on Russia for arms imports, but has now turned to the US as it undergoes a lucrative and major modernisation of its ageing military.

"We want to take our expanding defence cooperation to the next stage of co-production and co-development," Swaraj said.

The talks come one day after the two sides signed an agreement in Washington that allows access to each other's military bases for repairs and resupplies.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar sealed the pact in efforts to strengthen defence ties to counter concerns over China's growing military assertiveness.

Carter said the agreement would make joint operations between their militaries logistically easier and more efficient.

Washington has increasingly turned its focus to Asia as it tries to counter China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and is eager for India to play a greater role in its network of regional defence alliances.

Regional superpower China is expanding its deep-water naval presence and staking a claim to disputed areas of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Both Carter and Parrikar stressed that the new agreement did not allow for US bases to be set up on Indian soil nor for troops to be stationed there.

US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who is taking part in the talks in Delhi, has said the idea of increasing two-way trade from US$100 billion to US$500 billion was ambitious.

Modi, who enjoys close ties with US President Barack Obama, pledged to overhaul India's economy after winning landslide elections in 2014, to attract much-needed foreign investment and boost growth.

Kerry arrived late Monday from Bangladesh where he said there was evidence to link the extremists behind a recent series of deadly attacks there to the Islamic State group.