US-India pact tilts Asian power balance

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The Independent Online
India has emerged from the shadow of its Cold War military alliance with Russia with the signing of an important defence pact with the United States. The move could tilt significantly the balance of power in South Asia, Washington's closest friend in theregion having traditionally been Pakistan, India's worst enemy.

The US hopes closer links with India could reduce the menace of another war - in which nuclear weapons might be unleashed - erupting between India and Pakistan. However, in talks with officials in Islamabad and in New Delhi this week, William Perry, the US Defense Secretary, failed to convince the rivals to halt atomic programmes or attempts to buy or build missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads.

The pact, signed on Thursday in New Delhi by Mr Perry and India's Home Minister, SB Chavan, paves the way for joint military exercises and united defence research and production. The countries also vowed to maintain greater "transparency" in defence matters, though it is not clear whether that refers to India's nuclear programme. Like Pakistan, India denies it possesses a nuclear arsenal but admits it has the know-how and equipment for several bombs. The US is blocking delivery to Pakistan of 38 F-16 fighter-bombers, even though Islamabad has paid for them, because Pakistan refuses to halt its nuclear programme. Many strategists predict the danger of a nuclear conflict is greatest in South Asia.

While in Islamabad, his first stop, Mr Perry had to display diplomatic sleight-of-hand to prove the Clinton administration, by improving ties with India, was not discarding its once loyal ally. At the height of the Cold War, in the Eighties, Washington funnelled arms to mujahedin guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. As a pay-off, Washington bankrolled a weapons shopping spree by the Pakistan's military regime.

"We simply want to establish a normal defence relationship with India," Mr Perry added. "I'm not envisioning that the United States would be proposing arms supplies to the Indian government."

Until the Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, opened his country to the West three years ago with economic reforms, it was stoutly socialist. Since Washington mistook a non-aligned foreign policy as overtly hostile, India had no choice but to buy weapons from the Soviet Union and send officers there for training. With the USSR's collapse, and Russia's inability to furnish new military equipment, New Delhi has been gradually switching to the West as a source for ships, planes and armaments.

One obstacle to a US-India tie-up is the Clinton administration's attempts to force the Russians not to sell India the latest rocket technology. Washington is afraid India might attach a nuclear device to a rocket and launch it at Pakistan. India claims Pakistan has a short-range missile, the M-11, bought from the Chinese, and it needs its own Prithvi to protect itself.

Mr Perry has urged both countries not to deploy the missiles. To do so, he said, would be "a clear escalatory action".