US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, the first senior member of the Biden administration to visit India, said on Saturday he had raised the issue of human rights of the country’s minorities with members of the Indian cabinet as “partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions”.
Austin, the first African-American to hold the post of defense secretary, made the remarks while responding to a question at a media briefing on whether he had raised the human rights of India’s minorities during his interactions with Indian interlocutors.
Human rights and values were discussed as shared strengths of the two countries, senior Indian officials said, though there was no specific discussion on the human rights situation in India. The only specific discussion on this pertained to minorities and women in Afghanistan, the officials said.
Austin acknowledged he had discussed with defence minister Rajnath Singh on the issue of India’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, which faces potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), but said sanctions were not “on the table” as India is yet to acquire the weapon system.
Austin also said the US never considered that “India and China were on the threshold of war” during their ongoing standoff in Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Asked specifically if he had raised the violation of human rights of India’s minorities as the first member of the Biden administration to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Austin replied that he “did not have an opportunity to talk with him [Modi]” about the issue during their meeting on Friday.
“Having said that, I did have a conversation with other members of the cabinet on this issue. I think we have to remember that India is our partner and a partner whose partnership we value, and I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly we feel comfortable in doing that, and you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and still make progress,” Austin said.
His version of events differed from the Indian side’s reading of the meeting, the Indian officials cited above said, although there was no official comment from India’s foreign or defence ministries on this.
Prior to his arrival in India, US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez wrote a letter to Austin, asking him to raise concerns about India “trending away” from shared democratic values, including the Indian government’s handling of the farmers’ protest and a crackdown on journalists and critics, and the S-400 deal with Russia.
Responding to a question on Menendez’s letter, Austin said: “You’ve heard President [Joe] Biden say that…human rights and the rule of law [are] 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 you treasure your values as well. So, there are a number of things that we can and will work on together.”
Austin evaded a direct reply to a question on whether the S-400 deal would pose a problem for the India-US relationship and only said sanctions were not on the table as the weapon system had not been delivered to India.
India has defended its $5.4-billion deal with Russia for five S-400 systems, the first of which is expected to be delivered by September. The US has already imposed sanctions on its NATO ally Turkey for a similar deal.
Austin said: “We have countries that we work with from time to time that have Soviet or…Russian equipment that they’ve acquired over the years and we certainly urge all our allies and our partners to move away from Soviet or Russian equipment…and really avoid any kind of acquisition that would trigger sanctions on our behalf.
“There’s been no delivery of a S-400 system and so that conversation, that issue of sanctions is not one that’s been discussed but we did address with the minister of defence the issue of the S-400.”
Austin dismissed a question on whether a war between India and China was imminent, and said India and the US could work with like-minded countries to check Chinese aggression in the region.
“On 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,” he said.
The US, he said, is working with like-minded countries such as India, Australia, and Japan to maintain freedom of navigation, promote peace and stability, and “ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region”. Working with these countries with shared interests is “the way you check any aggression in any region”, he added.
Austin was equally dismissive of a question on reports about US troops staying on in Afghanistan till November, several months after the deadline for their withdrawal in May under a deal with the Taliban.
Austin said his discussions with defence minister Rajnath Singh covered a wide range of topics, including equipment, information-sharing, and additional opportunities for logistics support. “We consider India to be a great partner and…there’s just a lot of opportunity there to strengthen that partnership and to do some 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,” he said.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that Austin’s hour-long meeting with external affairs minister S Jaishankar focused on the strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific. Jaishankar spoke on India’s current security challenges and the discussions also covered the changing scenario in Europe and West Asia.
The situation in Afghanistan was addressed in detail and Austin and Jaishankar exchanged their assessments of the ground situation and the peace process, the people said.
While highlighting the commonalities and convergences in India-US ties, Jaishankar said the relationship was unique for the breadth and intensity of cooperation in numerous domains, the people said.
Austin said human rights and values are important to both sides, and the US will lead with these values, and Jaishankar agreed and emphasised that a strong India-US relationship was important for both countries and the rest of the world, the people added.