India and the US on Thursday elevated their strategic ties to a new level and signed a long-negotiated defence pact that will enable Indian armed forces to buy more sensitive military equipment from Washington while they also pledged to cooperate for ensuring "a free, open Indo-Pacific" region to contain China's expansionist aspirations.
The two sides held their first 2+2 talks between external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman and their US counterparts secretary of state Mike Pompeo and defence secretary James Mattis.
The talks among other key outcomes culminated into the signing of Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA).
Sitharaman and Mattis signed the pact as two of the most powerful men in the world negotiated with two top women ministers of India.
Addressing the media after the talks, Swaraj and Sitharaman said the two sides have concluded the COMCASA pact, taking their already close strategic and defence ties to an advanced level.
"Defence came out as the single-most important aspect of our discussions today," Sitharaman said.
"We are also putting in place an enabling framework for closer cooperation between our defence forces. The signing of COMCASA today will enable India to access advanced technologies from the US and enhance India's defence preparedness."
The pact guarantees India access to critical US defence technologies and communication network to help the militaries of the two countries in their interoperability.
Indian armed forces will now also be allowed to install US-made high-security communication equipment on defence platforms sourced from America.
COMCASA is the second of the three foundational agreements needed for interoperability with the US.
The two countries had earlier inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016. However, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement remains pending.
Secretary Pompeo told the reporters that the US and India shared a commitment to "a safe, secure, prosperous, free and open Indo-Pacific region" -- the region in India's backyard where China has expanded its military presence, threatening trade on the key maritime line.
"The two sides also agreed to boost the rule of law, national sovereignty, peaceful resolution of maritime and other issues. We decided to elevate our strategic relations for more cooperation. We also agreed to increase military cooperation with India."
Sitharaman said maritime security was one of the focuses of the ties and "to deepen our cooperation in this area, we will expand our interactions on maritime domain awareness".
She recalled that the US had renamed its Pacific Command responsible for relations with India as Indo-Pacific Command which reflected "our wider global partnership" and would "enhance our interactions with the US military's Central Command".
A joint statement issued after the talks recognised "that the two sides are strategic partners, major and independent stakeholders in world affairs".
It noted their commitment to work together and "in concert with other partners toward advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality and on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and overflight".
The two sides emphasized the need to work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible, and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development and connectivity for the Indo-Pacific region.
Secretary Mattis described the inaugural 2+2 dialogue "productive and forward thinking" to boost "our bilateral relationship and our shared future".