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PM avoids Bush New York date

Washington, Aug. 30: For the first time since India and the US began a post-Cold War engagement, there will be no meeting between their leaders on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

After much debate, South Block has opted out of a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush in New York next month. The Americans had sounded the Indians last month for a meeting on September 14, but did not press for an appointment after realising Delhi was unlikely to ask for one.

Officially, the explanation is that there is little new for Singh and Bush to discuss since they met only in mid-July. But the decision to avoid a meeting will give Singh breathing space on a number of issues, which beg for a summit-level interaction in the aftermath of agreements between the Prime Minister and Bush here last month.

It will also give Singh enough opportunity to walk the tightrope with the Left parties by delaying decisions or commitments on a variety of issues by way of follow-up to the summit. A meeting in New York would have imposed on the Prime Minister the need to make commitments.

A meeting, for instance, would have come immediately after Lt Gen Jeffrey Kohler, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), gives a classified briefing on air missile defence for India’s top military brass in Delhi on Monday.

It would also have come at a time when talks between the two military establishments are at an advanced stage for buying the USS Trenton, an American naval transport ship, for India.

If the deal for the 34-year-old USS Trenton goes through, it will become the first US-made ship to be acquired by the Indian Navy. To give a push to military sales, Washington is said to be offering it at a price that cannot be refused.

Monday’s briefing will unveil for the Indian side the Patriot Advanced Capability-III (PAC-III), a sophisticated missile defence system, which had hitherto been inaccessible to Delhi. Previously, the US had only briefed India on an earlier version, PAC-II.

It was decided during the June visit here of defence minister Pranab Mukherjee that the Americans would not only open to Indians the secrets of PAC-III, but also advance that briefing, which may have originally come much later.

But the dilemma for the Indians is that Kohler is bringing with him to Delhi not only those who will do the briefing on PAC-III. His delegation will include representatives of Lockheed Martin, which makes F-16 planes, and those of Boeing, which produces F/A-18 multi-purpose fighters.

India is keen on PAC-III, but not so keen on F-16s or F/A-18s, though it has accommodated the Americans by showing interest in them. But the US is keen to sell them.

DSCA spokesman Jose Ibarra has been underplaying queries on Kohler’s briefing, saying that there is no offer of the PAC-III system to India and that “this is just a briefing on a weapons system”.

The implication is that if India wants defence against a possible missile strike from Pakistan, the acquisition of such capability will only come with strings attached in the form of other purchases.

Now that Singh is not meeting Bush in New York, a summit on such tricky issues can wait till the President visits India next year.

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