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US Defence Secretary Gates to visit India early 2008

delhi Updated: Dec 14, 2007 21:40 IST

IANS
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Bilateral, regional and global issues are likely to figure prominently when US Defence Secretary Robert M Gates visits India "early in 2008", a visiting American official said on Friday.

"Secretary Gates appreciates the importance of the relationship with India. We are looking for a suitable time for the visit early in 2008," the official said at a select media interaction in New Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive office he holds.

However, the earliest the visit can happen is February as Indian Defence Minister AK Antony's engagements are "fully booked till end-January," an Indian official said.

The last time a US defence secretary visited New Delhi was in June 2002 when Donald Rumsfeld was here at a time when India and Pakistan almost went to war after the December 2001 terror attack on the Indian parliament.

India had ordered an immediate mobilisation of troops on the western frontier and the standoff continued for almost 10 months.

Gates assumed office in December 2006 after Rumsfeld was forced to step down following a series of setbacks the US army suffered in the ongoing war in Iraq.

"Our relations with India are very important," the US official said, adding: "It is important for our officials to meet each other to understand our respective perspectives."

He also spoke of the "good momentum and good trends" in the growing warmth of India-US relations in spite of hiccups over the civilian nuclear deal due to the objections of the Left parties, which support Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.

Responding to a question on the agenda for his visit, the official said: "I am not here to push any issue. We have many interests and many objectives we should be sharing."

India-US military ties have been growing steadily since the frostiness caused by the sanctions on this country in the wake of the 1998 Pokhran nuclear blasts.

The armed forces of the two countries have staged a series of war games, the most recent being the Malabar naval exercise in September, the largest such to be held in the Bay of Bengal.

Apart from India and the US, the exercise had the participation of the Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies.

Prior to that, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz also participated in the Malabar drill and had paid a port call at Chennai.

In 2008, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is to participate in the prestigious Red Flag war games conducted by the US Air Force (USAF) at Nevada's Nellis air base.

The US has also offered India six C-130J Super Hercules heavy lift aircraft under its Foreign Military Sales programme and price negotiations are currently underway on this.

US aerospace majors Lockheed Martin and Boeing are also in the race for an IAF order for 126 multi-role combat jets, respectively offering the F-16 and the F/A-18 aircraft. Four other aircrafts are also in the fray.