NEW DELHI // The United States and India must overcome deep differences with Pakistan to bolster peace and security in South Asia, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, told a conference in New Delhi yesterday.
"Pakistan is a complicated relationship for both of our countries but one that we must work to improve," Mr Pannetta said a speech in New Delhi where he is meeting the country's leaders to discuss China and Afghanistan.
"India and the United States will need to continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective - and often deep - differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous," Mr Panetta said at the forum organised by the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a policy research group,
Mr Pannetta said a new US strategy sought to "expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy".
Mr Panetta welcomed steps taken by India and Pakistan to normalise their trade relations, a new focus by the neighbours who are hoping greater commerce can pull them together.
He called for more joint research and production efforts, expanding military exercises and for both India and the US to tackle legal dilemmas posed by space weapons and cyber warfare.
"We can do more to drive the creation of a rules-based order that protects our common interests in new areas like cyber security and space. We need to develop rules of the road in these domains to help confront dangerous activities by states and non-state actors alike," he said.
Mr Panetta said the Pentagon would seek to ease US rules on the sharing of defence technology with India,
Mr Panetta also met with Indian leaders yesterday and Tuesday and said he urged them to provide additional support to Afghanistan, including trade, reconstruction and assistance for the Afghan security forces.
The US is hoping that India can play a more robust role in the war effort, particularly in the training of Afghan forces, as the number of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan continues to decline over the next year.
In the past, India has cautiously helped the Afghan army, partly to avoid offending Pakistan or being drawn into Afghan security affairs.
India assisted Kabul mostly with economic and development aid and has helped build up the Afghan security forces by training Afghan police officers.
Training for Afghan soldiers extended to individual army officers who attended a multination course at the National Defence College in Delhi. There was no organised training of Afghan national army soldiers at Indian defence schools, but Afghan army soldiers have been attending courses at Indian military academies over the past few years.
Mr Panetta also met with the Indian defence minister, ALASKA Antony, yesterday and discussed increased defence trade and plans to conduct military exercises together. America's defence ties with India have grown steadily since about 2000, including a substantial increase in arms sales that now total more than US$8.5 billion (Dh31.2bn) over the last 11 years.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will meet Indian leaders in an effort "to streamline our bureaucratic processes and make our defence trade more simple, responsive, and effective," Mr Panetta said in the speech at the conference
Changing US regulations on transfers "will be hard," Mr Panetta said. "But that's the nature of the democratic systems that we share."
Mr Panetta also said US-India ties will move beyond a seller-buyer relationship to "substantial co-production and, eventually, high-technology joint research and development" of weapons.
The remarks were a nod to India's irritation over controls on the transfer of US military technology at a time when the Obama administration is seeking a greater role for India in the Asia-Pacific region, including an enhanced presence in Afghanistan. While ties with India have strengthened since 2001, when the US lifted sanctions placed in the aftermath of India's 1998 nuclear tests, Indian officials have bristled at the US curbs on defence equipment.
Mr Panetta's visit here comes as US tensions with Pakistan, India's archrival, continue to fray, strained by persistent CIA drone attacks against insurgents inside Pakistan's borders. Mr Panetta's speech struck a conciliatory tone but also acknowledged the rocky relations with Pakistan.
He confirmed that the US had targeted a senior Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan.
"We had a strike yesterday that hit another deputy leader," Mr Panetta said in a reference to the killing of the group's number two Abu Yahya Al Libi. The death of Libi was announced by the US on Tuesday.
* Associated Press, Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse