India and the United States have signed a key military communications pact and set up a hotline for their foreign and defence ministers to stay in touch on "emerging developments", in a further elevation of defence and diplomatic ties between the two countries.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis held the first-ever "two plus two talks" yesterday with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
The two sides signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa), which, according to a joint statement, would facilitate India's access to advanced defence systems.
"Defence cooperation has emerged as the most significant dimension of our strategic partnership and as a key driver of our overall bilateral relationship. The momentum in our defence partnership has imbued a tremendous positive energy that has elevated India-US ties to unprecedented heights," said Ms Sitharaman, who said signing the Comcasa would enhance India's defence preparedness.
Speaking at the joint press briefing, she said the two countries would hold their first tri-services joint exercises off the coast of eastern India next year.
Mr Mattis said the US would work with India to enhance and expand India's role as a primary major defence partner of the US and elevate the relationship to a level that is commensurate with its closest allies and partners.
Defence cooperation between India and the US has been deepening over the past couple of years as the US has sharpened its focus on the Indo-Pacific region, on the back of concerns about the growing assertiveness of China.
The US recently renamed its Hawaii-based Pacific Command as the US Indo-Pacific Command and in 2016 designated India a major defence partner. The two countries agreed in principle to share each other's military bases for refuelling or repair of fighter jets and naval warships. In July, the US eased controls on the sale of high-tech defence equipment to India.
The growth of China has been of concern to India, which has its own border row with the Asian giant, while the US has been uneasy about maritime territorial disputes between China and other countries such as Japan.
Mr Pompeo said India and the US have a responsibility to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific that respects the rule of law, national sovereignty and peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes.
He said that the two sides discussed a number of regional and global issues including Afghanistan and South Korea.
Mr Mattis noted: "The US appreciates India's role as a stabilising force in the region's geographic front lines.''
Of late, irritants have crept in, including US sanctions on Russia and Iran. India is a major importer of Iranian oil and is seeking a waiver to acquire five S-400 Triumf air defence missile systems from Russia.
There was no mention of either Russia or Iran in the joint statement.
On trade, the two sides discussed increasing bilateral trade, investment, innovation and job creation in both countries.
Analysts said the talks had definitely strengthened ties.
"The signing of the Comcasa is an important step in India-US ties. It is a mandatory requirement for use of American high-tech equipment. It will strengthen defence ties,'' said Air Vice-Marshal (retired) Manmohan Bahadur, additional director-general at the Centre for Air Power Studies, an autonomous defence research and analysis body.