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Mattis lays groundwork for deeper defence ties with India

US could share advanced defence tech in bid to counter growing China influence in region

United States Defence Secretary James Mattis says his country is looking to share some of its " most advanced defence technologies" with India in a bid to counter the growing clout of China in the region.

His promise came at a joint media briefing with Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday during a three-day visit to India that also included talks on expanding naval cooperation and efforts to increase India's presence in Afghanistan. Mr Mattis left India for Afghanistan yesterday.

As the most senior Cabinet official from the Trump administration to visit New Delhi so far, his trip was seen by analysts as laying the groundwork for deeper defence ties between the two countries.

Ms Sitharaman, who met Mr Mattis for bilateral talks, said at the briefing that India "appreciated Secretary Mattis' willingness to share further cutting-edge platforms which would enhance India's defence preparedness to meet current and emerging threats".

While Mr Mattis did not give details on what kind of technologies the US would share, analysts said they could include sensitive unarmed surveillance drone technology that India has been seeking for its navy. Delhi has pressured Washington to share sensitive military technology and to manufacture US fighter jets in India.

There were no major announcements from either side, but they revealed at the press briefing that they had discussed ways to deepen maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, apart from expanding India's role in Afghanistan and working together to eliminate terror safe havens.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis inspecting an honour guard at the Indian Ministry of Defence prior to meeting his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman in New Delhi on Tuesday. He is the most senior Cabinet official from the Trump administration to visit New Delhi so far. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Experts said that the discussions had confirmed what US President Donald Trump said early this year - that it would continue the Obama administration's decision to label India a "major defence partner", bringing it to the same level as some of the US' closest allies.

"Mattis is the most respected member of the Trump Cabinet... The visit is important because the same conversation will continue in future meetings between the two countries,'' said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

Defence ties between the two countries have grown in recent years over mutual concerns about China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

India is also alarmed about the increasing Chinese presence in its immediate neighbourhood through major infrastructure projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that includes the building of roads and railways.

In a break from his predecessor, Mr Trump has also been pushing India to exert more influence on Afghanistan. While Ms Sitharaman reiterated India's longstanding policy of not sending troops to Afghanistan, the two sides are understood to have discussed ways for India to increase its developmental assistance. India has spent US$3 billion (S$4.1 billion) in reconstruction efforts that include building a dam.

India this week is hosting Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and hosting a trade and investment fair along with the US and Afghanistan.

Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said: "There is clearly a convergence of interests on a range of issues between the US and India, from China to Afghanistan... When it comes to China and the larger issue of freedom of navigation, that has not really undergone a shift under the Trump administration. This visit is important in keeping up the momentum of defence ties."

India also remains doubtful about whether Mr Trump's threats of sanctions will be accompanied by action on its rival and nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan. "India and the US have been speaking about defence cooperation since 2005," said Indian strategic affairs expert C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the think-tank Society for Policy Studies. "It has taken a very long time to identify areas in which we will cooperate. And we will continue to move slowly on defence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'Mattis lays groundwork for deeper defence ties with India'. Print Edition | Subscribe