Recent Indian media reports suggest U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin could visit New Delhi at point in the course of the month. The Print reported on March 6 that while India will be Austin’s first stop, his trip will also include visits to other Indo-Pacific countries. “This is his first visit to India and that too quickly after being sworn in. Of course, there will be shop talks, but you will have to look at it from a wider point, which includes China, Afghanistan and strategic issues in the Asia Pacific,” a source, commenting on Austin’s upcoming trip, told the news outlet.
A Reuters report on the subject had quoted an Indian government source as saying that Austin is likely to meet Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh some time in the week of March 15. The outlet noted that while Austin will be joining Secretary of State Antony Blinken during trips to Japan and South Korea, at the moment it is not known whether Blinken will be visiting India with Austin.
With the Indo-Pacific emerging as a key area of policy continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations – with the latter even endorsing the former’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” nomenclature – India too will remain a priority area for the Biden administration, especially when it comes to maintaining a steady course for the defense relationship. But given the sustained attention New Delhi has received from the past three U.S. administrations – and the obvious goals in the relationship already met – the challenge in front of the Biden administration would be to creatively work with India to keep the momentum in the relationship.
As Heritage scholar and India expert Jeff Smith noted in a recent tweet, “In a way he [Biden] confronts a good problem: most of the items on the legacy wish list for improving strategic and defense ties were checked off in the last few years. The low-hanging fruit has been picked.”
In particularly with the inking of the final of the four “foundational” India-U.S. defense agreements last year (which pertained to sharing of geospatial intelligence), there is a real risk that the bilateral military relationship between the two countries could end up stagnating – or worse, devolve into one where it is largely commercial, involving the sale of U.S. hardware to India.
In a January Brookings Institution report, Joshua White – who had served in the Obama National Security Council as senior advisor and director for South Asian affairs – identified six priority areas for the relationship ahead, ranging from embedding the bilateral security relationship within a “wider bilateral and multilateral architecture” to consultations on cyber, space, and nuclear matters.
“Ultimately, the [Biden] administration’s defense ambitions with India will only be realized if it works to rebuild a broader bilateral relationship that is not disproportionately dependent on defense and security ties; is disciplined about setting and resourcing its Indo-Pacific priorities; is realistic about India’s constraints; and is willing to invest in high-level engagement at the leader and Cabinet levels to sustain an ambitious agenda,” White wrote.
Of course, this makes eminent sense, and in many ways, Biden’s commitment to the Quad could emerge as one of the key venues through which the India-U.S. security relationship could be made to serve a larger incipient Indo-Pacific security architecture. That said, the fact of the matter remains that there are multiple domestic “unit level” factors that stand to inhibit deeper political-military cooperation between India and the United States, including domestic elite buy-in for – reception of — each other’s grand-strategic objectives (as I argue in a chapter in an upcoming volume on India-U.S. strategic relations). Ultimately, much will depend on how directly the two sides can set the terms of the relationship within the (geopolitical, ideological, as well as material) circumstances in front of both.