News Analysis | Austin visit may allay some concerns about Indo-Pacific and Afghanistan

In this handout image provided by South Korean Foreign Ministry, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (3R) U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (4R), South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong (3L) and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (2L) attend the Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting between South Korea and the United States at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 18, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Much of the action in U.S. foreign relations is happening in Asia this week and almost all of it is Asia focused. U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, are on a trip to Tokyo and Seoul. Secretary Austin is heading towards New Delhi after Seoul and Secretary Blinken will fly to Anchorage , Alaska, where he and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi for the first China-U.S. bilateral of the Biden administration.

In India, Mr. Austin is scheduled to meet Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and other “senior national security officials” (presumably NSA Ajit Doval tops this list). They will discuss a deepening of the Major Defence partnership, the Pentagon had said when announcing the visit. They will also discuss the Indo-Pacific and are expected to discuss operationalising the ‘foundational agreements’ of U.S. defence cooperation, the last of which was signed in October (the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement).

“I have no doubt that the discussions will be candid behind closed doors. What’s worth watching, however, is whether the Secretary speaks openly in New Delhi about U.S. or joint efforts to counter Chinese coercion across the Indo-Pacific, or falls back on more opaque references to shared threats,” said Joshua White, a professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and former South Asia Director in the Obama National Security Council.

There are a few sales in the works as well, including a $ 3 billion plus deal for 30  armed drones from General Atomics which is the final stages of being cleared by the Defence Ministry.

The Defense Secretary visiting New Delhi as part his maiden visit abroad may also help shift perceptions about his résumé.


“A visit to New Delhi on his first trip abroad might also be designed to allay concerns that the Secretary, a former commander of the U.S. Central Command with deep experience in the Middle East, was not going to give the Indo-Pacific its due,” Mr White said.

We can also expect discussions around Afghanistan. The U.S. is trying to facilitate a peace deal via an inter-Afghan dialogue, as it re-assesses a May 1 deadline for troop withdrawal that Mr. Trump had committed to as part of a deal with the Taliban.

U.S. President Joe Biden said that getting American troops out by the deadline “ could happen” but is “tough”  in an ABC interview that aired on Wednesday. The President also said that the deadline , if extended, would not be pushed back much longer.

“The fact is that was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the former President worked out” he said. “ And so we’re in consultation with our allies as well as the [Afghan] government and that decision is in process now.”

While India was not invited to Thursday’s talks in Moscow on an intra-Afghan settlement, it is part of a proposed U.S. plan for a United Nations conference on a settlement. Indian concerns about Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal are therefore likely to feature in Mr. Austin’s discussions in New Delhi.

Neither would it be unprecedented for the Secretary of Defense to make an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. Jim Mattis , former Defense Secretary dropped in on U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan  in September 2018 when the Trump administration was trying to push a peace deal in the country. The Pentagon however had nothing to announce on Afghanistan , when The Hindu asked if Mr. Austin would be visiting the country.

Possible Discussions on CAATSA

Then there is the question  of  U.S. sanctions on India for buying the S-400, a Russian missile defence system. India, which paid just under $5.5 billion for the equipment, will begin taking delivery of the system this year potentially kicking off sanctions under a 2017 U.S. law, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).  Senator Bob Menendez , the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, wrote to Mr. Austin this week asking him to raise not just the S-400 sanctions possibility with his interlocutors in Delhi but also concerns about an erosion of democratic norms in India.

India continues to enjoy bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, but along with that comes an interest in and reactions to developments within the country.

“The letter from Senator Menendez suggests Congress will play an active role in shaping the U.S.-India relationship,” says Sameer Lalwani, director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia program.

“I expect the Pentagon will continue to communicate the trade-offs and consequences for deep U.S.-India defense cooperation if India inducts the Russian-made S-400 system. At the same time, I expect India to proceed with this procurement because it does bolster its defenses, particularly against China and the PLAAF [ Chinese air force],”  Mr. Lalwani said.

Prior to his departure from New Delhi in January, former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Juster had said that CAATSA was not designed to harm friends and allies of the U.S.. His comments were made not long after the Trump administration sanctioned Turkey (a NATO ally of the U.S.) in December, for its S-400 purchase.

The law does provide for sanctions waivers: this is contingent on it being in the national interest of the U.S., or the country in question cooperating with the U.S. on security matters, or the country reducing its reliance on Russian weapons.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see sanctions on India that could significantly set back in the relationship, but the Biden administration will likely have to work with Congress to prevent their hands from being tied in future legislation,” Mr. Lalwani said.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 10:50:05 PM |

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