Amid border tensions with China, Army vice chief to visit US

Indian Army vice chief Lieutenant General SK Saini will on Saturday kick off a four-day visit to the United States at a time India is locked in border tensions with China in the eastern Ladakh theatre and the country is in the midst of buying a raft of military items from the US to beef up the army’s capabilities, officials familiar with the developments said on the eve of the visit.

Issues related to arms procurement and joint training will be discussed during the visit that seeks to bolster bilateral military cooperation, the officials said.

Saini’s visit (October 17-20) assumes significance as he will be visiting the Hawaii-based United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) whose responsibilities include deterring aggression and promoting security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region even as the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group returned to the South China Sea this week for its third deployment this year amid Beijing’s rising belligerence in the region.

“The aim of the visit is to enhance military cooperation between both the armies,” an Indian Army spokesperson said on Friday.

He said General Saini will visit the US Army Pacific Command — the army component of USINDOPACOM — and hold talks with the military leadership, witness the US Army’s training activities and get an overview of its equipment capabilities.

Saini’s visit comes days ahead of the planned 2+2 dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US. The 2+2 dialogue is expected to be held in New Delhi on October 26-27, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary Mark Esper set to visit India for the talks.

“He (the vice chief) will also visit INDOPACOM where aspects of military cooperation and furthering military-to-military engagement, including procurements, training in niche domains, joint exercises and capability building will be discussed,” the spokesperson said. The equipment ordered from the US by India for its army includes six Apache attack helicopters, more stocks of Excalibur precision guided munitions for its artillery guns and an additional 72,000 Sig Sauer assault rifles.

The visit of the vice chief to the US is crucial in the context of the India-China standoff that is escalating into a serious situation, said former army vice chief Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd).

“Strategic-level endeavours underway towards capability enhancement to meet the potential threat need to be expedited. Consequent to the recent meeting of the Quad, the threat perceptions have witnessed greater convergence. It is in this context that the visit is very significant,” Lamba added.

The spokesperson said the visit would further enhance the operational and strategic collaboration between the two armies. He said India would be participating in two joint exercises with the US next year, despite the Covid-19 restrictions — Yudh Abhyas (February 2021) and Vajra Prahar (March 2021).

Cooperation for ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific that is in line with a rules-based order is expected to be a focus area for both the vice-chief’s visit and the 2+2 ministerial dialogue, the officials said.

The USINDOPACOM is the US military’s largest unified command whose vast area of responsibility extends from the west coast of the US to the west coast of India. Its name was changed from the Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 to reflect the greater emphasis on South Asia, and especially India, in protecting American strategic interests.

The vice chief’s visit also comes at a time when Australia is likely to be part of the next Malabar naval exercise conducted by India with the US and Japan. The next edition of Malabar, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is expected to be held in November, Indian Navy officials said.

China has been wary of the Quadrilateral security dialogue or Quad that was revived in late 2017 by India, the US, Australia and Japan, and these suspicions have increased since the four countries upgraded the forum to the ministerial level last year.

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