NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and India have committed to holding joint military drills next year that for the first time will feature their land, air and sea forces, in an apparent move to counter China's expanding influence.
The defense and foreign ministers of both countries met on Sept. 6 in New Delhi for the "two-plus-two" talks, which also produced agreements to let the U.S. supply defense communications technology to India, as well as establish mutual hotlines and promote Indian production by the defense industries of both nations.
However, the ministers made no mention of American sanctions on Iran and Russia in their joint statement or news conference, though they likely discussed the contentious topic at their meetings.
The gathering marked the first-ever two-plus-two talks between the U.S. and India. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo represented the U.S., with Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on the Indian side.
Next year's military drills will be held in eastern India.
"Individual military exercises between these two countries have been held in the past, but not tri-service exercises," an official at India's Ministry of External Affairs told the Nikkei Asian Review. The decision to hold the drills must have been made around the end of August, the official added.
The parties signed a pact called the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, geared toward helping the two nations work better together on defense. The move appears aimed at providing a check on China, which is using its Belt and Road Initiative economic bloc to build influence in South Asia.
"Today our two countries entered into an ambitious plan to elevate our security cooperation across a number of areas," Pompeo said at the joint news conference following the meetings.
Sitharaman described the meetings as "the most positive and productive."
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration seeks a "free and open Indo-Pacific" region. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi harbors concerns over whether the U.S. will carry out as before its responsibilities toward Asian security under Trump, an Indian diplomatic source said. Modi met with President Xi Jinping on a visit to China in April, seeking to steer relations toward a more harmonious state.
If the U.S. fails to maintain close security ties with India, American influence could ebb in the strategically important Indian Ocean region. Mattis spearheaded the meetings out of a sense of urgency on that front, seeking to dispel concerns in New Delhi, a U.S. State Department source said.
American sanctions on Iran and Russia remain sticking points in the U.S.-India relationship. India imports large amounts of crude oil from Iran, and the majority of its weapons imports come from Russia. New Delhi is talking with Moscow about buying the Russian-made S-400 air-defense missile system. It appears the U.S. asked India to cooperate on sanctions, but the Indian side demurred and no agreement was reached.
"The two countries did not want to call out any negatives [or] differences," said Harsh Pant, director of the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. "They must have definitely discussed Iran and Russia, but they could not let the focus be on that."
But Pant saw signals that common ground could be reached. Swaraj said at the news conference that the U.S. "is emerging as a supplier of energy to India."
"This could mean that India is looking to cooperate with the U.S. on the oil import issue," Pant said.
Nikkei staff writer Nupur Shaw in New Delhi contributed to this report.