NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — India will be able to buy more sophisticated fighter aircraft and other high-tech arms from the United States as part of a closer defense relationship between the two nations, the United States Department of Defense has said.
This would include state-of-the-art combat aircraft including the F-16 and F-18, the department said in a statement released Thursday.
“It is our goal to help meet India’s needs in the defense realm, and to provide important capabilities and technologies that India seeks. We are on a path to accomplish this,” the statement said.
The defense decision comes as the U.S. and India signed a groundbreaking nuclear pact during a visit to New Delhi by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Under that deal, the U.S. agrees to send nuclear fuel and expertise to India in exchange for New Delhi opening up its civilian nuclear reactors to international inspectors.
The arms decision will be viewed with interest by India’s regional rival Pakistan, which President Bush will visit briefly on Saturday.
India was disappointed by a U.S. decision nearly 12 months ago to sell F-16s to Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terror.
“Where only a few years ago, no one would have talked about the prospects for a major U.S.-India defense deal, today the prospects are promising, whether in the realm of combat aircraft, helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft or naval vessels,” the department statement said.
“We have indicated our intention to offer both the F-16 and the F-18, both combat proven aircraft. As additional capabilities enter our force, we will work with the government of India to make them available,” it said.
“Our proposal will also address India’s interest in technology transfer and indigenous co-production.”
President Bush’s three-day Indian trip continues Friday with a trip to the thriving technology metropolis of Hyderabad.
It is expected the president will be met again by protesters reflecting the nation’s mixed feelings about the United States — a country seen as a loyal friend by some and a global bully by others.
On Wednesday, nearly 150,000 protesters, most of them Muslims, demonstrated in New Delhi.
However, only a few thousand protesters took part in Thursday’s demonstrations — made up of a mix of social and environmental groups. “Bush is a killer,” one sign read.
Local police in Mumbai said at least 65,000 anti-Bush protesters rallied there Thursday. Protesters burned effigies and shouted slogans.
Under the nuclear deal announced Thursday, India pledges to open up its 14 civilian nuclear reactors to international inspectors and keep power generation separate from its military program.
But India — which first tested its nuclear weapons nearly eight years ago — will keep eight sites for secret military purposes under the terms of the deal, reached after intense negotiation.
Some details of the agreement were not released. The U.S. Congress must approve the terms before any action can be taken.
Bush said India and the United States were developing closer ties and that expanding India’s nuclear power capacity would ease pressure on fossil fuels and the U.S. economy.
“We have concluded a historic agreement today on nuclear power,” Bush said at a news conference Thursday with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. (Watch for details on the last-minute deal — 2:17)
Bush said the agreement would help to “make the world safer” and praised India for setting an example “for other nations to participate in civilian nuclear power in such a way as to address nonproliferation concerns.”
India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear nations, and critics say the India deal could undermine the international pact.
But Bush, who is in India to build relations, said he would lobby Congress to approve the deal, which faces opposition in both countries. (President’s trip in pictures)
“I am confident we can sell this to our Congress as in the interests of the United States,” said Bush, who is trying to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.
A richer India also could be a larger market for U.S. goods and Bush is anxious to help.
India’s economy is booming and requiring more power, and that demand is expected to continue to rise.
The nuclear issue became the biggest single irritant in U.S.-India relations after the 1998 India nuclear tests triggered fears of a nuclear arms race when New Delhi’s neighbor and traditional foe, Pakistan, conducted its own nuclear tests days later.
India and the United States now say the nuclear pact is the centerpiece of what they call a “strategic partnership.”
But many Indian scientists and others in the nuclear establishment fear it will erode the military ambitions of the world’s second most populous country and possible Asian counterbalance to the power of China as well as Pakistan.
Potential political fallout
Aware of their concerns, Singh has pleaded for their support.
“There has been no erosion of the integrity of our nuclear doctrine either in terms of current or future capabilities,” he said earlier.
Despite the potential political fallout from the deal, both sides have much to gain, one analyst said.
“The essence of this strategic partnership is to provide a countervailing influence to China … to act as a restraint on the exercise of Chinese power,” security analyst Brahma Chellaney said.
Beijing was quick to respond Thursday.
Any pact “must meet the requirements and provisions of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the obligations undertaken by all countries concerned,” The Associated Press quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang as saying.
While Bush was in India, blasts killed at least four people, including an American diplomat, near the U.S. Consulate in the Pakistani city of Karachi, police said. (Full story)
Bush is set to travel to Pakistan on Saturday. On Thursday, Bush underscored his support for that country, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism. (See the Bush itinerary)
“Terrorists and killers are not going to prevent me from going to Pakistan,” Bush said of the next country to be visited on his South Asian tour.