Gates: Not concerned with India missile test

February 26, 2008 8:20:09 AM PST
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he was not concerned about a missile test announced by Indian officials on the same day he was holding talks with the prime minister and other leaders. Instead, he said he is impressed by how much the relationship between the American and Indian military has grown in recent years, and the United States is interested in further expanding that relationship.

India's quest to modernize its military against a backdrop of China's burgeoning defense growth and an ongoing regional terrorism threat are key focuses of Gates visit here.

"It is in our interest to develop this relationship," said Gates. "Just as it is in the Indians' interest."

Gates visit here coincided with the announcement that India had tested a nuclear-capable missile, fired from an underwater platform in the Bay of Bengal. It was unclear if the test was successful.

Asked about the test, Gates said, "We have to deal with the world as we find it."

He added that, "I don't think there is ... risk particularly from our standpoint in doing that, I think that we have a lot of opportunities in the interaction with India."

India is building a nuclear-powered submarine expected to start sea trials next year. It would be able to launch ballistic missiles, which would give India second strike capabilities if its land- or air-based weapons were disabled.

Gates met with the prime minister, the minister of external affairs and other elected officials in the parliamentary government.

His visit comes during a somewhat volatile time in the region. Talks have stalled on a landmark nuclear cooperation pact between India and the United States, and New Delhi continues to eye nervously the ongoing unrest and terrorism threats in neighboring Pakistan.

Gates said that while he believes the nuclear agreement "is a good deal for both countries," his visit is independent of the ongoing negotiations. Still, he said, "We certainly are hopeful that India can get done what it needs to, so that we can get it done and get this agreement completed."

While neither subject was a major topic on the agenda for Gates' sessions with Indian officials, they are unquestionably linked with efforts to broaden India's military cooperation with the U.S. And officials are likely to seek out India's perception of the level of stability in Pakistan, where embattled President Pervez Musharraf's party was upended in recent elections, triggering questions about his future in office.

Musharraf has been an close ally to the U.S., particularly as the war across the border in Afghanistan drags on, fueled in part by al-Qaida insurgents and Afghan Taliban fighters hiding in the mountains straddling the two countries.

Russia has long been the prime arms supplier for India, but New Delhi has warmed and expanded defense relations with the U.S. in recent years. Defense officials said the breadth of the defense relationship between the U.S. and New Delhi - which includes military exercises and weapons buys - is larger than any India has with other nations. And American companies are eagerly eyeing the lucrative contract for 126 fighters.

Asked about efforts to improve military relations with India, Gates said, "clearly the defense trade relationship is growing, so I think there are a number of areas in which there is potential for cooperation between us."

On the table are prospects for New Delhi's plan for a $10 billion fighter jet purchase - which features bids from major U.S. defense contractors Boeing Corp. and Lockheed Martin.

But U.S. officials have warned that it would be naive to expect a decision on the fighter bids to come quickly, and that Indian elections projected for next year are likely to influence the pace of the process.

Already India has agreed to buy six of Lockheed's C-130J Hercules airlift aircraft, for roughly $1 billion.

The principle motive for visiting India, Gates told reporters, is a recognition of the critical role it is playing in the region.

"One of things that has been the most, one of the most, significant changes since I came back to government in an interval of 15 years or so has been the significantly improved relationship between the United States and India," Gates said. "And I want to see what we can do to not only strengthen that but perhaps expand it in other ways."

Talks between the two countries have stalled on the nuclear deal, which would allow the U.S. to send nuclear fuel and technology to India. The agreement would reverse decades of U.S. anti-proliferation policy with a country that has tested nuclear weapons and refused to sign nonproliferation treaties.

U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to India, have said the agreement would allow India to conduct nuclear tests, and in return New Delhi would separate its military and civilian reactors, and allow international inspections at the civilian ones. Officials from both countries - including some members of Congress and India's communist parties - have expressed opposition to the pact. Some Indians worry that it would exert U.S. influence over their country's foreign policy, while U.S. officials are concerned it could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile.

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