The new US Defence Secretary is slated to arrive in India later today for a three-day visit. Lloyd J Austin III, the first-ever US defence secretary to include India on his maiden foreign trip, is scheduled to meet his counterpart Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit K Doval, during his New Delhi visit from March 19 to 21.
Austin will also be visiting Japan and South Korea during the trip. The meeting comes days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden interacted virtually for a first-of-its-kind Quad meeting, and is the first visit to India for a top member of Biden's cabinet.
While the recent Quad meeting had made no mention of China by name, it had spoken emphatically about striving to ensure that "all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion".
It is also likely to be a topic of discussion in Austin's upcoming meetings. According to reports, the meeting will cover ways to further strengthen India-US strategic ties and the boosting of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness. The Afghan peace process is also expected to be a key focus area.
On March 10, the defence ministry had said that India and the US are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges and common interests in maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific during Austin's visit.
Ahead of the high-profile visit, Senator Robert Menendez, the Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Austin, urging him to take up with Indian leaders the issue of New Delhi procuring Russian S-400 missile defence system.
(With inputs from agencies)