Kerry, Hagel to visit India to push strategic ties

WASHINGTON, July 16 Wed Jul 16, 2014 7:19pm EDT

WASHINGTON, July 16 (Reuters) - America's top diplomat and the head of its Defense Department will visit India in coming weeks seeking to revitalize a relationship the United States sees as a crucial counterbalance in Asia to an increasingly assertive China.

Secretary of State John Kerry will represent the United States in an annual session of Strategic Dialogue with India scheduled for July 31, and he will be followed to New Delhi by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in early August, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

They will be the most senior U.S. officials to visit India for talks with the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since his May election. Modi is expected to visit the United States in September.

In testimony for a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Nisha Biswal, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, noted that President Barack Obama had said the U.S.-India relationship would be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."

She also said Modi had told U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in India last week that the world would benefit from closer U.S.-India ties.

"Across the board ... we have an opportunity here to engage more robustly with in India in how the Asian landscape unfolds," she said. "And we look forward to engaging with the new government in that agenda."

Biswal referred to planned joint military exercises involving India, the United States and Japan, a country with a growing strategic rivalry with China in East Asia.

"We see opportunities for increasing the collaboration across Southeast Asia," she said.

"We are engaging more frequently in consultations and dialogue with India on ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and look forward to increased and more frequent consultations across the East Asian sphere," Biswal said, adding:

"A rising India is in some ways going to be an ameliorating influence on China, in China's own growth and China's own behavior in the region."

Amy Searight, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said there was "a real strategic convergence" as India looked east in Asia and the United States pursued its "rebalance" to the continent.

"We both are looking to the challenges in East Asia today, of which a rising China is certainly a major part," she said.

Searight said there were growing relationships between India and Japan and India and the ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, a country which has been playing out a bitter territorial rivalry with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Referring to India's growing relationships with other Asian countries, Searight added: "We want to capitalize on that ... we want to support that activity." (Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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