NEW DELHI: Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry began holding talks with India’s top leaders on Tuesday, after the world’s two largest democracies signed an agreement strengthening their defense ties.
Kerry is set to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders in New Delhi on ambitious plans to hike trade between their two countries five-fold to around $500 billion.
After arriving from neighboring Bangladesh, Kerry will take part in the “strategic and commercial dialogue” launched by US President Barack Obama and Modi last year to deepen economic and security cooperation.
The talks come one day after the two sides signed an agreement in Washington that allows access to each other’s military bases for repairs and resupplies.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar sealed the agreement in efforts to strengthen defense ties to counter concerns over China’s growing military assertiveness.
Carter said the agreement would make joint operations between their militaries logistically easier and more efficient, while praising the strength of their overall relationship.
“Today we moved that partnership forward,” Carter told reporters.
“Minister Parrikar and I are going to continue to work together to ensure that our two countries and our two militaries grow closer still,” he added.
Washington has increasingly turned its focus to Asia as it tries to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and is eager for India to play a greater role in its network of regional defense alliances.
Regional superpower China is expanding its deep-water naval presence and staking a claim to disputed areas of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Both Carter and Parrikar stressed that the new agreement did not allow for US bases to be set up on Indian soil nor for troops to be stationed there.
They decided the details in Washington after reaching the agreement “in principle” in New Delhi in April, when they also agreed to strengthen their cooperation on maritime security.
Kerry, on his fourth trip to India, began meetings with ministers and senior officials, discussions that are expected to include war-torn Afghanistan and tensions with rival Pakistan.
US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who will take part in the talks, has said the idea of increasing trade from $100 billion to $500 billion was ambitious.
A US State Department senior official said before Kerry’s arrival that India needed to further reform its economy if the two nations were to achieve their goal.
Modi, who enjoys close ties with Obama, pledged to overhaul India’s economy after winning landslide elections in 2014 to attract much-needed foreign investment and boost growth.
Kerry’s arrival in Delhi late on Monday was thrown off schedule when his motorcade was stuck in major traffic jams following torrential rain, prompting frustrated tweets from his traveling press pack.