- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

A sharp boost in military spending announced by India yesterday just three weeks before a visit by President Clinton to South Asia came as yet another disappointing sign to U.S. officials that prospects for peace in the region remain remote.

"India's defense budget increase is an indication they do not believe they will have peace with Pakistan in the near future," said a senior U.S. official.

India boosted its military budget for the coming year by 28 percent to $13.6 billion, the largest increase ever for the world's fourth-largest military. The announcement came as artillery barrages exploded over the Line of Control separating Pakistani- and Indian-held portions of Kashmir.

March is the traditional time for an upsurge in fighting as snows melt to open high mountain passes to troop movements.

Some analysts predicted that this year would be especially violent for the two nations, which have fought two wars over the disputed Himalayan region since independence in 1947.

India is anxious to recover from the humiliation of last summer's incursion into Kashmir by Pakistani-backed Islamic militants, and the shame of having to deal with Pakistani hijackers of an Indian Airlines jet during Christmas week.

Pakistan, now ruled by military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is seeking to erase the humiliation of being forced to evacuate Kashmir last summer and being named the aggressor by the United States once its major ally.

To top it off, U.S. officials still will not say if Mr. Clinton will make a brief stop in Pakistan during his March 19-26 visit to the region.

A visit to India and not Pakistan would be an enormous embarrassment to the shaky Islamabad government and the Pakistani people, analysts say.

"No decision has yet been made on a visit to Pakistan during Mr. Clinton's trip to India and Bangladesh," the U.S. official said yesterday. "Pakistan is a work in progress. We are in communication with each other."

The official noted that U.S. advance-planning teams are actively working in India to prepare for Mr. Clinton's visit, the first by a U.S. president in more than 20 years to the world's most populous democracy, with 1 billion people.

While Mr. Clinton's visit draws near, tensions continue to climb in the region.

A Pakistani official yesterday said the military-budget increase was a sign that India had "hegemonic designs" of controlling South Asia.

The U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said that India remains barred, since May 1998 when it set off nuclear blasts, from purchasing U.S. weapons.

"If they moved towards the international mainstream in nuclear proliferation, we'd ease the sanctions," the official said. "Benchmarks have been prepared, but we do not talk about them openly."

The United States wants India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was rejected by the U.S. Senate, or a significant move to limit nuclear proliferation in South Asia.

According to James Clad, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, Mr. Clinton's visit is increasing tension because it has been poorly planned.

"This impending visit seems to have been clumsily put together. The U.S. clumsiness results from the administration's well-intentioned efforts to try to have some ameliorating effect on Pakistan's downward slide in a time of severe troubles," said Mr. Clad. "And the visit which many see as mostly designed to fill in President Clinton's lame-duck 'dance card' anyway remains hostage to the nuclear issue."

Both countries set off nuclear blasts in 1998, triggering automatic U.S. sanctions, which Congress later allowed Mr. Clinton to waive if he sees fit.

"In broadest terms, Bill Clinton thinks that as the first American president born after World War II, he can put Indian-American relations on a better, different course" than during the Cold War, when the United States was Pakistan's ally, the U.S. official said.

The official noted that India has become less aggressive toward its smaller neighbors, aside from Pakistan: "I think they are beginning to understand that bullies are not really appreciated."

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