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India's Booming Economy Allows Technological, Military Expansion - 2004-02-06

India's booming economy is allowing the government to invest more heavily in the country's defense and technology sectors, fueling the belief that India could rise to become a regional or global superpower, and change the way the nation thinks of itself.

It is the biggest Defense Expo India has ever had. More than 300 companies from 20 different nations have come to the capital New Delhi to display military hardware ranging from knives and assault rifles to unmanned spy aircraft and ship to air missile systems.

The timing could not be better. The expo opened February 4, a day after the Indian government announced a more than $5 billion fund aimed a modernizing the country's armed forces, the fourth largest in the world.

India's defense spending now totals an estimated $15 billion a year and New Delhi says it wants to sell its own technology overseas.

Nuclear-armed India is now seen as an emerging world power. It has enjoyed staggering economic growth - expected to reach eight percent this year. Its population of a billion people and its growing middle class have also helped India produce a high tech industry to rival that of the United States' Silicon Valley.

Because of its increasing strength, there are signs that India's perception of itself is changing. The Defense Ministry says the nation is breaking out of its pacifist mold, part of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, who led an independence campaign of peaceful resistance against British colonial rule.

Defense Minister George Fernandes spoke at the Defense Expo.

"Till not so long ago, India was shy to display its weapon making capabilities," said Defense Minister George Fernandes, speaking at the Defense Expo. "That coyness may have had Gandhian overtones once upon a time."

Now Mr. Fernandes says it is clear that India's military hardware and technology will make the nation a global leader.

"It is not manpower, but technology that won the two Gulf wars for the United States," said George Fernandes. "I can say with legitimate pride that India is in the forefront of these technologies."

India's military expansion is evident. Last month, New Delhi signed a deal with Russia to buy the Admiral Gorshkov, a $1.5 billion aircraft carrier, and 12 MIG fighter jets.

But beyond the purchase of military hardware, India is being courted by world powers. Last month, the United States and India announced a pact to increase cooperation on civilian nuclear and space programs, and a plan for expanded trade ties in the high-technology field.

Analysts say the move paves the way for India to eventually join the U.S.- led missile defense system to protect itself against possible attack.

Some in New Delhi question the wisdom of allying India too closely with the world's only superpower, the United States, for fear of getting caught up in the pitfalls of U.S. foreign policy. Others say that fear is unfounded.

"India did not send troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, showing its independence in the growing strategic relationship," pointed out India's former Army Chief of Staff, retired General S. Padmanabhan, the author of the recent book, The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017. In it, he predicts India and the United States becoming evenly matched in military and technological power in the next 13 years. But he calls on the nation to forego the role of superpower and use its might solely for defense.

"As far as we are concerned we are going to develop our power, not merely for the purpose of projecting it here and there, but purely for the purpose of making sure nobody tampers with us. Nobody messes with India," he said.

With the growing strength of its military and the new alliances India is forging with the rest of the world, India's internal debate over its role as an up and coming global power is far from over. For the moment, the nation seems content to cement its power, before it worries about how it should project it to the world.