NEW DELHI (AFP) – Fighter jets, drone deals and shared concerns over Afghanistan’s security look set to dominate the agenda when US Defense Secretary James Mattis visits India this week.
Mattis is scheduled to arrive late Monday and is set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new defence minister, in the first visit by a top US official since 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.
Trump and Modi met in June in Washington and the visit by Mattis is a sign “the political leadership in both countries place defence cooperation as a top priority”, Mukesh Aghi, president of the US India Strategic Partnership Forum, told AFP.
Delhi and Washington share concerns about Afghanistan, with 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 safe haven to “agents of chaos”.
Mattis “will express US appreciation for India’s important contributions toward 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.
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 $1 billion in aid.
In 2016 the United States designated India a “Major Defence Partner” with the aim of increasing military cooperation and cutting red tape to ease defence deals.
Mattis’s predecessor Ashton Carter pushed hard for stronger defence ties and the Trump administration has not signalled any intention of changing course on this.
Trump has praised India for contributing to regional peace and stability and for buying US military equipment.
Mattis is likely to seek to persuade India to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 aircraft in a deal potentially worth $15 billion.
Lockheed Martin has offered the most upgraded version of the jet fighter to India, the world’s largest weapons importer.
The US manufacturer is competing with Swedish defence giant Saab, whose Gripen E made its maiden flight in June.
India has said it needs at least 100 single-engine fighters to counter the growing air threat posed by China and Pakistan.
Saab and Lockheed have both offered to build the jets locally to comply with Modi’s “Make-in-India” initiative, which aims to cut imports and build a domestic defence industry.
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.
“Since Chinese assets have started to dominate the Indian Ocean region, the Trump administration is keen on fast-tracking the acquisition of the drones,” the source said.
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 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 United States to forge closer ties on counter-insurgency, regional security operations and peacekeeping.