India remains a vital partner to the U.S. in helping to counter China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific region, even though New Delhi has declined to take a strong stand in the Ukrainian crisis against Russia, New Delhi’s close ally since the earliest days of independence.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their Indian counterparts in the fourth annual “2+2” series of discussions on a range of issues. The meeting comes as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declined to join a Western sanctions campaign against Moscow over the Ukraine invasion and large numbers of Mr. Modi’s political base express sympathy for Moscow and skepticism of Washington.
Despite its neutral stance, India is seen as a key pillar of U.S. hopes in Asia to contain an aggressive China, which is what U.S. officials preferred to emphasize publicly on Monday.
“Our partnership is based on a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, one grounded in principles such as the rule of law and national sovereignty,” Mr. Austin said, shortly after Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh arrived at the Pentagon for early talks.
Mr. Austin suggested that both China and Russia are both looking to undermine the security of its neighbors and to alter the status quo by force.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian devastation that it has created are blatant attempts to undermine the international order that is grounded in the rules and the principles that we share,” Mr. Austin said. “Now more than ever, democracies must stand together to defend the values that we all share.”
Defense Minister Singh brought a more generic message in public, telling reporters at the Pentagon he hoped the meetings would take the U.S.-India strategic partnership to the next level.
“This meeting and our 2+2 dialogue are indeed important landmarks in our bilateral relationship,” he said. “I hope this engagement will prove to be beneficial to strengthen our bilateral relationship.”
The country’s stance on President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused concern in Washington. India abstained on a U.S. motion last week to suspend Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. The country also continues to purchase energy from Russia, despite pressure from Western countries.
A senior U.S. official last month called India‘s U.N. votes “unsatisfactory” but “totally unsurprising,” and even Mr. Biden told a business forum in March that India had been “somewhat shaky” in the allied campaign to punish Mr. Putin for the war.
But even the Modi government’s decision to acquire the Russian-made S-400 air defense system has not soured the Pentagon on a deepening partnership with India.
“Every nation has to make their own sovereign decisions about what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” a senior Defense Department official said Monday. “We value that partnership [with India] and we want to improve it going forward.”
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