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India, U.S. strengthen defense ties

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who concluded a four-day visit to Washington yesterday, signed an agreement on defense ties and called for relaxation of U.S. restrictions on civilian nuclear technology transfers to India.

"Restrictions against India's nuclear program are anachronistic," Mr. Mukherjee told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. "Our nuclear energy and security programs are separate."

It would be "in the interest of the U.S." to help India acquire nuclear technology for energy purposes, the minister said.

Mr. Mukherjee cited India's "energy deficit" as a primary hurdle to the country realizing its economic potential. Easing the restrictions will "impact favorably on our economic prospects over the next 2, 3 years," he said.

India's economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 6 percent for the past few years, fueled by a technology boom and robust foreign investment.

According to Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Indian appeals for greater flexibility on nuclear exchange are "not new news," but the United States always has been reluctant to agree.

The agreement Mr. Mukherjee and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed Tuesday builds upon an earlier agreement signed in 1995 and is expected to upgrade the already growing defense ties between the two countries.

"We are transforming our relationship to reflect our common principles and shared national interests," said a joint statement released after the signing ceremony.

The agreement covers the U.S.-India strategic relationship in fighting terrorism and combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, among others.

A clause pertaining to expanded "collaboration on missile defense" could also expedite the proposed sale of the Patriot missile system to India.

According to an Indian Embassy press release, "the U.S. side offered to advance the proposed briefing on the Patriot system."

India's neighbor and nuclear rival, Pakistan, has expressed concern that such a sale could fuel an arms race in the region.

But the U.S. administration was quick to dispel such concerns.

"We don't believe an arms race will happen," a State Department official said. "Conventional weapons sales to the two countries will not upset the balance of power in the region."

The Pentagon refused to comment on any talks on the sale of Patriots.

Mr. Mukherjee also sought to allay Pakistani concerns on any missile sale. "There will be no Patriot missile transaction" during the visit, he told reporters. "I did not come to Washington with a shopping list."

Earlier in the week, Mr. Mukherjee met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney and addressed leaders from the Indian and U.S. defense industries at a meeting organized by the U.S.-India Business Council on Monday. Present at the meeting were major U.S. defense industry players, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Co., Boeing Co., General Dynamics Corp., General Electric and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.