• Answers some and evades some questions

By Team ADU

New Delhi. 20 March 2021. Pentagon Chief juggled some, answered some and evaded some questions from the media-majorly American , at the Indian capital during his ongoing visit.

The media interaction on the Day2 of the US Secretary of Defense Llyod J Austin III’s visit surprisingly did not begin with a statement from him. The press was asked to shoot their questions.

He started with a question on discussions with Indian Defence  Minister Rajnath  Singh on having engagements with like-minded partners in a multilateral group like the Quad or ASEAN and how did he see that materializing and operationalizing?  To this Austin responded, “Yes, I, clearly from a defense perspective, we do have a number of things in common, and if you just look at the countries overall, if you look at Australia, India, Japan, us, you know we really are interested in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region. We’re interested in being able to navigate the seas and fly the skies and international space and maintain in that degree of flexibility.”

This was followed by a question on whether  more Indian officers will be seen  in American headquarters and vice versa and does it mean more exchange in like professional military education, perhaps larger exercises with the countries out here?  The Secretary responded, “We’ll see what happens. I mean these are all mutual agreements in terms of the directions that we want to take. And clearly in terms of increasing interoperability then more exercises are good. And, so, we’ll see. But, again, we can expect that there’ll be frequent exchanges and we look forward to the ability to work together to build great capacity, greater capability going forward.”

When asked on whether he  shared the concerns expressed by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief that India was trending away from democracy , he responded, “You’ve heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law is important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values and as a democracy that’s pretty important to us. And, again, India is a democratic country and they — you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together.”

And then came a question on whether  during discussions with Prime Minister Modi or Minister Singh, did he press them not to buy the S-400 and what problems would that propose for the U.S./India relationship. To this he replied, “ we have countries that we work with from time to time that have Soviet or excuse me Russian equipment that they acquired over the years are we certainly urge all our allies and partners to move away from Soviet or excuse me Russian equipment. In some cases it was Soviet equipment because they bought it so long ago. But to move away from that and really avoid any kind of acquisitions that would trigger sanctions on our behalf. There has — there has been no delivery of an S-400 system. And so that conversation — the issues of sanctions is not one that’s been discussed. But we did address with the Minister of Defense the issue of the S-400.”

A journalist when in a follow up asked that US has  sanctioned Turkey over the purchase of the S-400. So this must be something that is on his mind and their mind. So, is  sanction on the table? Austin reiterated in response, “Again they have not — have not acquired an S-400 system yet. So, there would be no reason for sanctions.”

A third scribe again stated that India does have an agreement to purchase that system and what if they buy. Austin with patience answered, “Yes, we’re aware of the fact that they have expressed an interest in acquiring a system. But again that system has not been delivered.”

And then the focus shifted to China. The question was -in the last one year has U.S. thought at any point that war between India and China was imminent? And also as a follow-on, what did he  think how India and U.S. can collaborate to get — to counter the Chinese aggression, not just in borders with India but also in the Asia-Pacific region or Indo-Pacific. Secretary responded, “ Well the first part of the question, the answer is, no. To my knowledge we’ve never considered that India and China were on the threshold of war. The second part of the question in terms of what can be done to check Chinese aggression in the region. I think — I think that continuing to work with like minded countries as we are working with India, we are working with Australia, Japan and others in the region to ensure that we maintain a freedom of navigation that we do — we’re doing the right things to promote peace and stability in the region and that we really work together to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region. A lot of capability with the — capabilities with these various countries and again I think working together with like minded countries who have shared interests is the way you check any aggression in any region. And so we’ll — you can look for us to continue to do that in the future.”

The next question was whether he raised the question of violations of the human rights especially against Muslim minorities in India, with Indian Prime Minister, to which he responded, “ I did not have an opportunity to talk with him about that. Having said that, I did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet  on this issue. And I think we have to remember that India is our partner and a partner that — whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly we’re — we feel comfortable in doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and still — and make progress.”

And to his relief the next question was on whether  Quad was being expanded to include countries like South Korea and will Australia now become a permanent member of the Malabar exercise. He responded, “from our perspective we’re always willing to work with countries who share our values and have like goals and aspirations. And so whether or not those countries will choose to align with the United States and others is up to them. But, again, we’re always willing to work with folks who share our values and share our aspirations.”

Next was a question on do he see India operationalizing its foreign policy enough to deal with China since it’s historically been a non-aligned country and also focused on Pakistan And then just did the conversations touch at all on arms sales such as the MQ-9 or a base access.  Austin replied, “  Well, as you would imagine with two chiefs of defense we covered a wide range of topics that included equipment. It also included information sharing; it included additional opportunities for assisting each other logistically and just a number of things. And those were really, really good conversations. And quite frankly I leave those conversation very encourage about what’s in the realm of possible going forward. We consider India to be a great partner and again I think we have done a number of things to work well together. There’s just a lot of opportunity there to strengthen that partnership and to do some things, additional things to make sure that we’re promoting peace and stability in the region and providing for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, as well.”

The  question which will attract post Galwan India came next which was, is India prioritizing the China threat over the Pakistan issue as they historically do?  And as expected Austin answered, “ I think that’s probably better answered by the Indian government in terms of what their priorities are. My concern is that they prioritize their relationship with us and their willingness to work with us at the very top of their list of priorities here. So, again, in my engagements here I walk away very encouraged, not only by the hospitality that we’ve enjoyed while we’ve been here, but by the forward thinking and forward leaning that we witnessed  with the Pakistanis.” Now the last line is food for thought for India.

As the  American media present at the meet was interested in the statement of President Joe Biden on the troops in Afghanistan beyond May to which Austin reacted, “ I’m aware that there is speculation that the president has made a decision on keeping troops there to November — until November. And I’m a pretty prominent guy in those discussion typically and to my knowledge the President has not made a decision or made any announcements on when he’ll decide to remove the troops. So that, as you know, there’s a rigorous process that’s ongoing as the President really works his way through making that decision.  And no decisions have been made. No decision on length of stay or troop numbers have been made to this point. So, I’ll leave it at that.”

In a follow up on if It America adheres to that May 1st deadline, Secretary responded, “Well, we are mindful of the timelines and requirements that the Taliban has kind of laid on the table. I would just tell you that there’s probably nobody who understands the physics associated with removing troops and equipment out of a place better than me. And I think that, you know, as we work through this process we’ll keep all those things in mind and we’ll keep as many options open as we can. And we’ll — whatever the decision the President makes you can trust that it will be fully supported. And the experts like General Miller and General Milley and General McKenzie, once given, you know, the mission to accomplish things one way or the other, they’ll get it done and they’ll do — they’ll do a great job at getting it done, as well.”

And this tete-e tete did leave us with food for thought.