US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday to pursue closer strategic ties with India after a breakthrough aircraft deal the Pentagon thinks could usher in a new era of defence cooperation.
Gates' visit to India, the world's second fastest growing major economy, also reflects the interest of both the United States and India to counterbalance the rise of China, defence officials said.
In meetings with Indian officials over two days, Gates will make a sales pitch for US defence manufacturers competing against international rivals for a fighter jet contract potentially worth $10.2 billion.
"One of the messages the defence secretary will be bringing with him is, when you purchase from the US you're getting not only the best product in the world but you have the best support system, the best maintenance package over the life of the product," the official said.
"You also have companies that operate with integrity, which is different than what India has seen with other partners in the world. We offer the full package."
After decades of pro-Soviet ties, India has moved closer to Washington in recent years, with new arms sales and joint military exercises. Millions of Indians also are turning to the United States for education, jobs and consumer goods.
Earlier this month, India agreed to buy six Lockheed Martin Corp C-130J military transport planes worth about $1 billion -- a deal that marked a major shift in weapons-buying policy by India, which has relied heavily on Russian arms and transport aircraft.
India now wants to buy 126 multi-role fighter jets, and US manufacturers Lockheed and Boeing Co are competing for the contract.
Also in the race are Russia's MiG-35, France's Dassault Rafale, Sweden's Saab KAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies.
Gates' visit to New Delhi comes a week before India's March 3 deadline for bids.
"One of the things that has been the most, one of the most, significant changes since I came back to government, in an interval of 15 years or so, has been the significantly improved relationship between the United States and India," Gates said.
"And I want to see what we can do to not only strengthen that but perhaps expand it in other ways," he told reporters ahead of his visit.
India is fast becoming one of the world's biggest arms importers. Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, has said India could be the largest defence market in Asia with $20 billion in contracts over the next decade.
US defence officials, however, denied a report that India wanted the United States to give it the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier in exchange for New Delhi's agreement to purchase American F-18 fighters.
"Squash it," one senior official, speaking en route to New Delhi, said of the report.
"I will fall on my sword, I will hurl myself out of this airplane if there is any truth to this stupid story."
The focus on arms sales comes despite an impasse over a controversial civil nuclear deal seen by many as the centrepiece of India's strategic relationship with Washington.
The agreement, opposed by the Indian government's communist allies, would allow New Delhi to access US nuclear fuel and reactors by overturning a three-decade ban imposed after India conducted a nuclear test while staying out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A senior US defence official on the trip said the issue would only be discussed "tangentially" during Gates' visit.