NEW DELHI • United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was urged by a senior US senator to convey Washington's opposition to India's proposed purchase of Russian air defence systems as he headed to New Delhi yesterday for talks aimed at deepening security ties.
Mr Austin is making the first visit by a top member of the Biden administration to Delhi as part of efforts to forge an alliance of countries seeking to push back against China's assertiveness in the region. The leaders of the US, India, Australia and Japan - countries together known as the Quad - held a first summit last week pledging to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific and to cooperate on maritime and cyber security in the face of challenges from China.
India drew closer to the US following tensions with China on their disputed Himalayan border, where deadly clashes erupted last year. Washington has helped New Delhi, leasing surveillance drones and supplying cold-weather gear for Indian troops.
During Mr Austin's visit, the two sides will be discussing India's plan to purchase armed drones from the US, as well as a large order for more than 150 combat jets for the air force and the navy, people with knowledge of the matter said.
One thorny issue expected to come up is India's planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system. Washington has imposed sanctions on Turkey for buying that equipment. The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr Bob Menendez, urged Mr Austin to make clear to Indian officials the Biden administration's opposition to the deal.
"If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under Section 231 of CAATSA," Mr Menendez said in a letter to Mr Austin, referring to the law called Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
"It will also limit India's ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts," he said.
US firms Boeing and Lockheed are front runners for the multibillion-dollar combat jet deals.
An Indian government official said no deals were likely to be announced during the visit.
"The US and India are close security partners, we expect to have wide-ranging discussion with the US side on how to further defence cooperation," the official said.