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American lolly for lynchpin India

- Defence pacts off table to get Delhi on board

New Delhi, June 6: The US is pulling out the stops to take “lynchpin” India on board its new defence and security policy that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region by boosting arms sales to New Delhi.

US defence secretary Leon Panetta said the three defence pacts that his predecessor (Robert Gates) insisted on were now off the table. Panetta said he has also asked the Pentagon to cut bureaucratic red tape that was holding back arms sales to India.

India has about $8 billion of defence contracts with the US. But the Indian defence establishment under A.K. Antony was against signing the Logistics Support Agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) and the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA).

Together these pacts proposed by the US were called the “foundational agreements” for defence cooperation.

Defence minister Antony has been known to be hesitant to sign these agreements because of fears they could compromise the confidentiality with which the armed forces operate. The proposed Logistics Support Agreement, for instance, may be interpreted to grant the US forces basing rights and access to Indian military establishments.

Describing defence cooperation with India as the “lynchpin” of the US’ new military strategy that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region, Panetta said: “America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing a new defence strategy — a central feature of which is a ‘rebalancing’ toward the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.”

In a lecture at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, Panetta said the Indian and US militaries have built a strong foundation.

“In particular, I believe our relationship can and should become more strategic, more practical, and more collaborative,” Panetta said.

This is Panetta’s first visit to India as the defence secretary since taking over last summer. He led delegation-level talks with Antony today after talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon on Tuesday.

Panetta said the primary reason for his visit was to explain the background and context of the new US defence strategy. He had done the same in Vietnam and Singapore before landing in New Delhi.

He said the India and the US have common challenges such as terrorism and piracy.

“Handling these challenges requires a forward-looking vision for our defence partnership, and a plan for advancing it month-by-month and year-by-year,” he said.

The military exercises and exchanges now under way show the relationship is practical and “our defence relationship is growing ever more collaborative as we seek to do more advanced research and development, share new technologies and enter into joint production of defence articles,” the secretary said.

Under its new strategy, the US visualises “a peaceful Indian Ocean supported by growing Indian military capabilities”.