When United States Commerce Secretary Gary Locke met on Tuesday with India’s Ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar, he focused their discussion firmly on high technology defence sales between the two countries, describing that sector as “cornerstone of the U.S.-India strategic partnership.”

Their talks marked the start of early preparations for a high-tech business development trade mission to India, which the Mr. Locke will lead during February 6-11 2011, U.S. Department of Commerce officials here said.

In their discussion Mr. Locke and Ms. Shankar touched upon a wide range of bilateral trade and investment issues, with one of the top agenda items being an effort by the U.S. to advocate for U.S. fighter aircraft manufacturers. In that context Mr. Locke said to Ms. Shankar that the U.S. would be “a willing and capable defence partner” to India.

In a statement the U.S. Department of Commerce confirmed that over 70 companies applied to participate in February’s mission, which will make stops in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and at each venue seek to promote U.S. exports of high tech products and services in key economic sectors.

Officials noted that the sectors that the mission would cover included civil-nuclear trade, defence and security, civil aviation, and information and communications technology.

Even before President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November, U.S. exports of goods to India were said to have risen by 15.2 per cent and were projected to surpass an all-time high $19 billion for the entire year, DoC officials pointed out.

They added that “Advanced technologies, including aerospace, specialised materials, information and communications technologies, electronics and flexible manufacturing systems underpinned this growth.”

With India being the U.S.’ 17th largest export market, over $16 billion in value, Secretary Locke had accompanied Mr. Obama on his visit and similarly held meetings with industry leaders in India in November that aimed to press forward defence sales.

The U.S. President’s visit saw deals worth over $14.9 billion being inked and showcased, a large proportion of which related to the defence sector.