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U.S. asking Indian navy for support in move to strengthen nations' ties

U.S. asking Indian navy for support in move to strengthen nations' ties

Author: Sumana Chatterjee, Mercury News Washington Bureau
Publication: The San Jose Mercury News
Date: November 1, 2001
URL: http://www0.mercurycenter.com/premium/nation/docs/usindia01.htm

Washington -- The Bush administration is preparing to enter a new military arrangement with India that would allow the Indian navy to refuel U.S. ships in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, officials in both governments said.

The agreement, still being negotiated, would expand military cooperation between the world's two largest democracies -- and define how India can provide logistical support for Bush's anti-terrorism coalition. Relations between India and the U.S. were prickly during the Cold War but have warmed in recent years.

The accord is but one part of the Bush administration's long-term strategy of strengthening ties with India, a nuclear power. It also would help India counter the growing influence with Washington being cultivated by Pakistan, its hostile neighbor, also a nuclear power.

Under the agreement, the Indian navy would help secure sea lanes and the flow of oil from the Middle East to East Asia, said an Indian senior diplomat who spoke on condition on anonymity. Ordinarily, the United States ensures free passage for oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz, but the U.S. fleet's mission has been diverted to support American airstrikes on Afghanistan.

Indian officials would like the naval cooperation deal to broaden India's access, influence, and ''zone of stability'' to East Asia, the Indian diplomat said. Securing the sea lanes is an integral part of India's economic growth because the country has become increasingly dependent on overseas trade and oil imports since the government began to decentralize its economy in the 1990s.

The agreement could strain relations with China as well as Pakistan. Each has opposed any expansion of the Indian navy that would allow it to patrol the high seas, and each has waged wars with India in the past 40 years.

Sean McCormack of the National Security Council did not know whether both countries had been informed of the impending agreement with India.

''We have diplomatic contacts with the Chinese and Pakistan. I think the communication is very clear with the two governments'' about American intentions, he said.

Pakistan welcomes greater naval cooperation between India and the United States, said embassy official Asad Hayauddin. India is a naval power in that region, he said, adding, ''We see our relations as mutually complementary, not mutually competitive.''

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee plans to visit Washington on Nov. 9. Ambassador Lalit Mansingh said Vajpayee plans to ''reaffirm India's commitment to fight global terrorism'' at his meeting with Bush.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may travel to New Delhi this weekend during his visit to the region.

''We are very pleased with our discussions about cooperation in the war against terrorism,'' said McCormack.

Soon after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, Vajpayee called Bush to express his condolences and offer support for Bush's coalition. Because of India's antagonism with Pakistan and enmity with Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, defining India's role in Washington's anti-terror coalition poses delicate diplomatic challenges. The naval agreement appears to be at least part of the solution.

The naval agreement would show that ''the U.S. and India have come a long way since the 1970s and '80s, when India was resentful of the U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean,'' said Rajesh Basrur, director of the Center for Global Studies, a think tank in Bombay, India.

During the Cold War, India led nations seeking to remain independent, aligned to neither the United States nor the Soviet Union. But as the United States forged an alliance with Pakistan, India leaned heavily toward the Soviets.

At the time, India viewed any U.S. military activity in the Indian Ocean as a potential threat. For example, in the 1971 India-Pakistan War, a U.S. carrier was sent to the Bay of Bengal.

''That had a profoundly disturbing effect on Indian thinking of U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean,'' Basrur said. With the new military cooperation agreement, ''it's a 180-degree turn,'' he said.

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