NEW YORK -- Just as his E-4B aircraft, a militarized version of the Boeing 747, started to descend toward Hawaii on the first leg of his first international trip as secretary of defense over the weekend, Lloyd Austin repeated a phrase he has employed since his confirmation hearing.
"China is our pacing threat," the towering ex-infantryman told reporters. "Our goal is to make sure that we have the capabilities and the operational plans and concepts to be able to offer credible deterrence to China or anybody else who would want to take on the U.S."
For the Pentagon, shoring up allies and partner nations is critical to dealing with that "pacing threat."
So, after visiting the U.S. military's all-important Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, and his counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul, Austin arrived in New Delhi on Friday on the last leg of his Indo-Pacific tour.
He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national security adviser Ajit Doval, and commended New Delhi's "growing engagement with like-minded partners across the region to promote shared goals," according to the Pentagon.
The two sides reaffirmed their commitment to promote a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific and agreed to further strengthen their broad-ranging and robust defense cooperation, the readout said.
Austin conveyed greetings from President Joe Biden to Modi.
Officially, India does not receive ally-level access. But given current tensions with China, that may just be a formality. As it is designated a "major defense partner," New Delhi will have an opportunity to see some of the pages from Austin's posture playbook.
"An interesting thing to watch for is whether there are signs of acceleration in the relationship coming out of the visit," said Sameer Lalwani, director of the South Asia program at the Stimson Center think tank. "Recent testimony and discussions indicate U.S. military planners are more publicly acknowledging that time is not on its side in the Pacific, and so it may engage India with a greater sense of urgency in terms of defense cooperation, burden-sharing and access."
"U.S. interlocutors might do this by sharing experiences and encouraging adaptation of force structure as well as the frequency, scope and complexity of exercises and even operations," Lalwani said. "During the trip, there will presumably be some discussions about future potential arms sales that can quickly bolster India's defense and deterrence."
India has something to offer that other heavyweights in the Indo-Pacific do not: the experience of having been involved in a hostile military engagement with the People's Liberation Army of China, the largest military machine on the planet.
Last year, at an altitude of over 17,000 feet, high in the Galwan Valley of the Himalayan region of Ladakh, PLA troops and Indian Army personnel clashed. The result of the skirmish, the bloodiest engagement in four decades even though it involved only hand-to-hand combat, was an embarrassment for New Delhi: 20 Indian soldiers killed and Indian positions occupied.
What followed was the biggest military buildup yet in the mighty Himalayas. At least three Indian divisions, including armored regiments, were mobilized.
It also provided an opportunity for Pentagon strategists and analysts to observe how the PLA moved in with its own cavalry and heavy-artillery units.
The confrontation lasted through the winter months of 2020, but February 2021 saw a gradual de-escalation through a series of diplomatic and military meetings, some hosted by Russia -- a mutual friend to both Beijing and New Delhi.
But with the crisis, Washington saw an opening. To keep China in check, the U.S. needed India to be less nonaligned and more of an ally, without actually being an ally. In the absence of a mutual defense treaty, Pentagon officials say they are moving toward New Delhi with offers of weapons, interoperability with the U.S. military, joint command and control, and even information-sharing.
"Mutual aversion and concern about China in the Indo-Pacific is what binds them," Eurasia Group analyst Akhil Bery said of the relationship.
"Under Prime Minister Modi, there was an embrace of the U.S. Modi realized that in order to be a $5 trillion economy, India can't do without U.S. technology and U.S. investment. And as it faces an increasing threat from China on its border, India has stepped up its defense partnership with the U.S."
But China is not the only binding factor.
"India is a heavyweight economic and maritime power that has immense potential to shape multipolarity in Asia, and yet its rise does not threaten U.S. interests owing to its geography, stated ambitions and institutions," the Stimson Center's Lalwani said.
"This trip is to signal India's importance right behind America's most important Asian allies and to show continuity of investment in the U.S.-India major defense partnership," he said. "It's also an opportunity for a 'getting-to-know-you' meeting" between the Indian strategic establishment and Austin and his new team, Lalwani said.
The low-hanging fruit of the new defense secretary's visit looks to be defense sales. "There have been reports that India is looking for 30 MQ9 Reaper drones, 10 each for the three branches of the military," said Jeff Smith, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of "Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century."
The drones seem to be "the next purchase coming down in the pipeline," he said. "Also, for some years now, India's been talking about six more P8I Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft," which it already has a dozen of.
"This might be the trip which locks up those deals," Smith said.
There will also be discussions on defense posture after the border conflict with China.
"The U.S. had rushed India two surveillance drones and cold-weather-gear equipment for Indian soldiers during the middle of the crisis," Smith said.
Now, with de-escalation underway, there's another conversation to be had: what India must do to reform its defense posture.
"In the middle of the crisis with China, there were reports that India would be reorienting one of its offensive strike corps that was traditionally oriented towards Pakistan to now watch the Line of Actual Control," Smith said, referring to the name of the disputed border with China.
"The crisis with China has solidified some trends that were already underway in its defense posture," he said. "Austin will assess what has changed, what's India seeking and how can the U.S. help provide India the materials to defend itself."
There are clear signals from the Pentagon that Austin's trip will also be used to study the basing of U.S. troops in the region.
"This doesn't mean bases, but spaces," it said Monday. It quoted a senior defense official as saying: "We are not looking to reposition large numbers of troops, in large vulnerable concentrations. We want to get the virtues of massing without the vulnerabilities of concentration."
"Across the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. appears to be counting on more points of access and staging to support operations in a variety of future contingencies, whether for disaster relief, maritime surveillance, or even in a conflict scenario," said Lalwani of the Stimson Center. "It seems reasonable for the U.S. to be exploring this with all its allies and key partners including India," he said.
But Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, is more skeptical.
"Militarily, India may find it harder to convert its Indian Ocean force projection plans and navy into one that can operate in the relatively distant Pacific region," Nawaz said. "It will need ports of call and refueling. Or risk becoming a U.S. appendage."
India's "trade and an economic codependence with China" will help it resolve or tamp down its Himalayan border dispute, he said. "It cannot effectively support the U.S. in a land war."
There is also a hitch -- and it is a big one: the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Designed to punish Russia and the customers of its military hardware, and recently used to sanction Turkey for its purchase of a sophisticated S-400 missile system from Moscow, the U.S. law could get in the way of the larger conversation about China unless a waiver is issued by Washington.
"It's a tough conversation but it's one that needs to be had," Eurasia Group's Bery said.
"India is said to take delivery of one of the [Russian-made] S-400 missiles systems this year," he said. "That opens it up for CAATSA sanctions. It will ultimately be a political decision whether or not to grant India waivers, but it is certainly going to be on the conversation agenda."
Another difficult conversation is expected between Washington and New Delhi on India's reduced political freedoms.
In early March, the New York-based Freedom House recently ranked India "partly free" -- a downgrade from the previous "free." The reasoning was ominous, and a damning assessment of the Modi regime: "The Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters."
"During the [2020 U.S. presidential] campaign, it did come up," Bery said, referring to then-candidate Biden's criticism of the Modi government's treatment of minorities, especially Muslims in disputed Kashmir.
"The issue was characterized as 'friends should not be afraid of having tough conversations with friends.' But is that enough to derail the relationship? I don't think so. The relationship is a strong one, and can survive those sorts of conversations."
In the longer time frame, the newfound interest in India is giving New Delhi an opening to direct attention to a different part of the U.S. playbook: the Western Indian Ocean.
Recent language by the Pentagon in the buildup to Austin's visit is signaling increased attention to this previously overlooked area in the Indo-Pacific. The Pentagon has stated that Austin will be focusing on this region in particular when he arrives in India.
Here, in its own backyard, analysts say India may be seeking the role of a new regional sheriff out of its own concerns and interests.
"The Indians have been wanting the U.S. to focus on the Western Indian Ocean for years now," the Heritage Foundation's Smith said.
"It's been a complaint from India for quite some time that we talk about the Indo-Pacific but American attention seems to focus on just the eastern half of that region, mostly dealing with disputes in the Western Pacific areas of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, or maritime security in the Strait of Malacca, which is in the Eastern Indian Ocean," Smith said.
"But in the Western Indian Ocean, the Indians have several interests specific to them," he said. "Firstly, they have the Pakistani navy to deal with, so they have a hostile force in their backyard. Secondly, the Chinese are building a military base in the area, on the eastern coast of Africa."
"Thirdly, they've got a large Indian diaspora in the Middle East, which brings in billions in remittances," Smith said. "Then there are the oil supplies coming in from the Middle East, and the piracy issue, so the sea lanes of communication there are very important to India. Credit to them for getting this space on the U.S. radar."
Afghanistan is also likely to feature during the visit.
For years, India has been kept at arm's length from the peace process by the U.S. out of deference to rival Pakistan, which weighs heavily in the Afghan security equation.
But recent disclosures, including a leaked letter from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, clearly show that India will be invited to an upcoming foreign ministers' summit on Afghan peace to be held soon in Turkey.
"They're probably very pleased that they made the cut to be at the meeting," Smith said.
"They did want a seat on the table," he said. "And they've got that."
However, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan, told Nikkei Asia that Islamabad is skeptical about New Delhi's participation in the negotiations.
"For years, India is the only country in the region that has been opposed to the peace process. The United States should be mindful of that position," Khan said.
But if anyone is mindful of that position, it is Austin himself. As a U.S. Army general, he led the military's crucial Central Command overseeing operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. From there, from 2013 until retiring in 2016, not only did he fight the Taliban and deal with Pakistan, but it was on his watch at CENTCOM that the current Afghan peace process effectively picked up pace. And it will be on his watch at the Pentagon that the U.S. pulls out the last of its at least 2,500 troops from the war-torn country -- but only if the peace process yields results.
Austin's trip comes in the wake of the year's most-talked-about conference and the first multilateral international summit -- the March 12 gathering of the heads of government of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad -- to have been hosted by his boss, President Biden.
"The Quad is not a security pact, but it could grow into an arena that allows the countries to cooperate more," the Pentagon said Monday.
Clearly, the American alliance system is critical to the Quad: Japan and Australia are the Quad members that lie closest to the continental U.S.
But it may be across the Indo-Pacific -- on the far side of what Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, calls the "diamond of democracies" -- that perhaps the second-most-important military player in the arrangement lies.