Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on the plane to Hawaii that bolstering alliances and partnerships with other countries is the focus of his whirlwind trip to the Indo-Pacific region. 

Recognizing the importance of India in any effort to check an increasingly assertive China, Mr. Austin is expected to visit New Delhi from March 19-21 for meetings with his counterpart, Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh and other senior national security officials.

“Secretary Austin’s visit to India as part of his first overseas travel emphasizes the strength of the India-US strategic partnership,” Indian government officials said.

Both sides are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen bilateral defense cooperation and exchange views on regional security challenges. 

With the country in the middle of a $250 billion military modernization program, the U.S. defense industry has sold India a variety of big-ticket weapons and systems items ranging from P-8I Poseidon patrol aircraft to Apache attack helicopters. Bloomberg reported that India plans to spend $3 billion to purchase 30 MQ-9B armed Predator drones. 

“Discussions regarding defense cooperation would also focus on how both countries could consolidate military-to-military cooperation and defense trade and industry cooperation,” Indian defense ministry officials said.

Citing officials familiar with the upcoming meetings, The Hindustan Times reported that America’s role in Afghanistan is expected to be on the agenda during the discussions between Secretary Austin and Minister Singh. India is expected to be included during upcoming meetings with the U.S., Russia, China and Iran that will try to present a unified front on the Afghanistan drawdown question.

Indian officials have expressed concerns over a power vacuum inside Afghanistan once U.S. forces leave that could result in a resurgence of the Taliban, The Hindustan Times reported.

Mr. Austin‘s three-day stop in India is expected to follow earlier visits to Japan and South Korea.

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