Fighter deal not to cloud Indo-US strategic ties

Washington: US on Saturday said that strategic ties with India would not be overshadowed by exclusion of two American companies from the Indian fighter contract and the forthcoming bilateral defence dialogue between the two nations would work on enhancing cooperation in cutting edge technology.

Though voicing a "big disappointment" over two giant American multinational companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. being excluded from the USD 11 million Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake said the forthcoming Indo-US strategic dialogue would go ahead in July.

Blake, Obama Administration`s point man for South and Central Asia, said the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would head the US delegation and Washington was looking ahead to a "significant cooperation between the two nations in frontiers of defence technology".

Initially the key meeting was slated for earlier this year and was to be attended besides Clinton by the Defence Secretary Robert Gates. The meeting was put off as the Indian Defence Minister A K Antony was busy with his home-state (Kerala) elections.

On whether the new Defence Secretary Leon Panetta would accompany the Secretary of State, Blake said US was keen that the upcoming dialogue include both Secretary of State as well as the Defence Secretary, but it depended on whether Senate ratified the appointment till then.

This was the first attempt by US armament companies to enter Indian fighter market and Blake said Washington had so far not received detailed briefing on the technical parametres for the rejection of the bids of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which were competing with "proven technology".

His remarks assume significance as US experts on South Asian affairs have termed New Delhi`s decision as strategically short-sighted and the one which could give a setback to the bilateral ties. Most of these experts had strongly batted for stronger Indo-US ties.

"The decision will set the US-India relationship back," said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation.

"It will lead many in the US to conclude that India has settled for a plane, not a relationship?and if that is the case, it will raise questions about why the United States should bend backwards to accommodate India," said Ashely Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Blake, however, tended to disagree with such a view point. "I will like to say that we are disappointed with the decision but we remain committed to our defense partnership to our wider strategic partnership," he said when asked about the reaction from the eminent American think-tanks.

"Even in the defense area, we are still doing quite a lot. I don`t want a have this kind decision in anyway overshadow that. I think that for example we (India and the United States) continue to have a strong interest in promoting global security and stability," he said.

"We will continue to persuade defense trade cooperation and we are pleased that India has shown confidence in American products such as C130J and the C17 and the P8 patrol aircraft and other platforms like that and obviously quite a significant future contract is coming up well and we are confident that American companies will be competitive in those as well," he said.

"So again we were disappointed but we also want to continue to try to expand our cooperation not only in defense area but more broadly," Blake said.

Responding to a question about the development of India-US relationship after the visit of the US President, Barack Obama, in November last, Blake said he thinks that there is still a very wide scope of activity that is occurring between the United States and India.

"On the counter terrorism front for example, I think, there been very good cooperation on post Mumbai attack investigations… our providing access to David Headley (the Mumbai terror suspect).

"We are continuing our close collaborations to prevent further terrorist attacks and we look very much forward to the homeland security dialogue will be occurring later this spring or early summer," he said.

"On the business side of course I think our business ties are booming. Exports in 2010 grew by 17 per cent. Our service export as well is growing very very fast.

"Commerce mission went out in April Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi to look at franchising opportunities which are huge opportunities in India," he said.

"On Afghanistan we just had our Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador (Mark) Grossman, who is visiting India right now to consult with Mr (Shivshankar) Menon (the National Security Advisor), the Foreign Secretary (Nirupama) Rao and India`s Special Envoy Ambassador Lamba," he said.

"We had very good consultation on Asia. And we have agreement to hold the trilateral US, Japan, India dialogue later this year. We are moving ahead on lots of our food security projects in Africa.

"So again I think there is a very wide scope of cooperation that is taking place and we expect that continue and the strategic dialogue will provide very good opportunity to not only review those but look at the way forward and other areas," Blake said.