New Delhi, Mar 20 (PTI): US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday said he discussed the issue of human rights of minorities in India with the Union ministers here, while noting that partners need to be able to have such exchanges.
Replying to a question on the Sino-India border row in eastern Ladakh at a media briefing, Austin also said that the US never thought that India and China were at the threshold of a war.
When asked whether he discussed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the alleged violations of human rights particularly against minorities in India, Austin said he did not have the opportunity to talk about it with him.
“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,” he told the select media briefing.
“I think we have to remember that India is our 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,” the US Defence Secretary said.
Earlier in the day, Austin held extensive talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh during which they resolved to further consolidate India-US defence ties through deeper military-to-military engagement with the US describing the partnership. Later, he met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.
According to sources, during his one-hour meeting with Jaishankar, Austin said as the two largest democracies in the world, human rights and values are important, and the US will lead with these values.
Jaishankar agreed and emphasised that a strong relationship between the two democracies was not only important for both countries but for the rest of the world.
Asked whether he shares concerns expressed by Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on democracy and human rights issues in India, Austin referred to President Biden’s views on it.
“You have heard President Biden say that human rights and rule of law are important to the United States of America. We always lead with our values. As a democracy that is pretty important to us. India is a democratic country and you treasure your values as well. There are a number of things that we can and will work on together,” he said.
While democracy and human rights issues do not come under the domain of the Pentagon, Menendez, in a letter, urged Austin to raise these concerns during his meetings with Indian leaders.
To a separate question on whether the US in any point of time thought that an war between India and China was imminent, he said never.
“No to my knowledge. We have never considered that India and China are on the threshold of war,” Secretary Austin replied.
Asked about ways to counter China’s aggressive behaviour, the US Defence Secretary said Washington will continue to work with like-minded countries like India, Australia, Japan and others in the region.
“We are doing the right things to promote peace and stability in the region. We really work together to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Working together with like minded countries who have shared interests is the way to check any aggression in any region. You can look forward to us to continue to do that,” he said.
Austin flew into India on Friday as part of his three-nation first overseas tour that signalled the Biden administration’s strong commitment to its relations with its close allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. He visited Japan and South Korea before arriving here.
On Friday, Austin called on Prime Minister Modi and held talks with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
The sources said discussions during Jaishankar-Austin meeting focused on the strategic situation in the Indo-Pacific. and the US side briefed about the recent visits in East Asia.
Jaishankar spoke about India’s current security challenges and its long term strategic outlook.
Conversation also covered changing global scenarios, including Europe and West Asia, the sources said.
They said Afghanistan was addressed in some detail and assessments were exchanged on the peace process and the ground situation, as also the concerns and interests of regional powers and neighbours.
Jaishankar appreciated the Biden administration’s engagement with India on this issue, the sources said.