Most of the attention before President Bush's visit to India this week has been focused on the pending nuclear cooperation agreement. The president says he will pursue a broad array of economic and political topics during his visit. But officials and experts say the relatively new and fast-growing U.S.-India military relationship will also be an important part of the trip, including the potential sale of U.S.-made fighter aircraft to India.
It was only 15 years ago that Congress came within three votes of cutting aid to India because of its nuclear-weapons program. Today, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have large blocks of members devoted to promoting U.S.-India relations.
That is only one indication of the depth and breadth of the changes in U.S.-India relations in recent years, a development summed up in a VOA interview by Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Peter Rodman. "We see India as a strategic partner in the 21st Century," he said.
Rodman says the old U.S. policy of punishing India for its nuclear program was not working, and the September 11 attacks in 2001 focused attention on a variety of common U.S. and Indian interests, including regional security and the war against terrorism. "The strategic environment of the new era is really pulling all of this together, and the president's trip to India is a way, I think, to bring this to a new stage," he said.
That new stage includes defense and military relations, including joint exercises at Indian army facilities in the jungle near the Burmese border, and at high altitude in Kashmir, and joint exercises between two of the world's leading air forces. There have also been military sales, including India's purchase last year of U.S. airborne warning and control aircraft.
"Our hope is that each of us will develop a track record. We will have more confidence in dealing with them. They will have more confidence in our reliability. The president is not going there to finalize deals, but we hope that this is a step toward the kind of mutual confidence that might develop in that way," he said.
And India is considering U.S. options as it prepares to buy a new generation of fighter jets. "We think it ia great breakthrough that we are in that competition, and the Indians seem interested in buying, at least in considering buying, a significant [weapons] system from the United States," he said.
India expert Samit Ganguly of Indiana University puts it even more dramatically. "[It is] surprising beyond measure that we are at this stage when we can engage in a serious discussion about the sale of such lethal weaponry to India, given the long-standing distrust on both sides. This constitutes a dramatic shift on both sides," he said.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the former top State Department official for South Asian Affairs, Teresita Schaffer, says the changes in U.S.-Indian defense relations, while dramatic, are also logical. "It is driven, I would say, by a recognition that the U.S. and India have very important common interests in Asian peace and stability and security in the Indian Ocean. And that these things make it natural for the two militaries to get to know each other better, and to find areas where they can work together," she said.
At a recent news conference, India's ambassador to the United States, Ronen Sen, expressed a similar view. "I do not foresee any situation in which there would be a clash of basic national interests between India and the United States. We might have, even in areas where we agree on the final outcome, we might have differences of approach on how to resolve certain issues," he said.
One factor that looms as a concern as the United States and India expand their defense relationship, and consider a fighter sale, is the impact on the longstanding U.S. relationship with Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism that President Bush will also visit this week.
"Well, they do not like it." said Rodman. "They do not have a veto over what we do. And we are an important supplier of Pakistan, and have always been. And we are trying to show our good faith to Pakistan that we support their conventional strength. And so, particularly if their own relations with each other are reasonably calm, then we have to do this."
Professor Ganguly believes there is more long-term potential for U.S.-Indian relations than there is for U.S.-Pakistani relations. "This is a relationship based upon an exigency. The Indo-U.S. relationship is much more robust. It is economic. It is military. It is cultural. It is multi-dimensional, whereas the relationship with Pakistan is one of strategic necessity," he said.
He says the U.S. Pakistan relationship goes back many years, but he notes that there have been interruptions based on policy differences, and that there is strong anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis.
Rodman says recent U.S. policy demonstrates that the United States can have strong defense relations with both India and Pakistan, even if the United States sells highly sophisticated fighter jets to India. "In a new era, we have new problems on our plate. And there was great potential to deepen our relations with both India and Pakistan, and we think we have succeeded in doing that," he said.
Rodman calls the development of U.S.-Indian defense relations an overdue correction of distortions caused by the Cold War, and he says President Bush's visit will be an important step in that process.