US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta held talks yesterday with his Indian counterpart focused on NATO’s planned exit from Afghanistan and China’s rising power, officials said.
Panetta’s two-day visit to New Delhi is part of a tour of the region that has stressed Washington’s strategic shift to Asia, with US officials portraying India as an anchor for the new approach.
Panetta met Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony before giving a policy speech at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
In his meeting with Antony, officials said Panetta discussed NATO’s planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as well an expanding arms trade and joint military training between the two countries.
In talks on Tuesday with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Panetta “underscored the link India plays between East and West Asia and how the United States views India as a net provider of security from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan and beyond,” his press secretary George Little said.
Indian officials are worried the departure of most of the US-led force could leave a dangerous vacuum in Afghanistan, and question if the Kabul government and its fledgling army will be able to fend off Taliban insurgents.
US officials said Panetta was encouraging India to play a more active role in Afghanistan, despite Pakistan’s deep suspicion of its archfoe’s motives in the country.
New Delhi and Washington share a common threat posed by Islamist militants, and the killing of al-Qaeda No. 2 Abu Yahya al-Libi, was likely to have come up in the talks.
Before he took over at the Pentagon last year, Panetta served as CIA director and oversaw an expansion of the drone bombing campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, as well as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year.
Earlier on his nine-day tour through Asia, Panetta unveiled plans to shift the majority of the US naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020, a symbolic step meant to signal US determination to preserve its influence in the face of a rising China.
Beijing said on Monday the US naval plan was “untimely” and called on Washington to respect its interests in the region.
The tilt toward Asia is designed mainly as a way to check China’s role, particularly in the contested South China Sea, reinforcing US diplomacy in support of smaller nations locked in territorial disputes with Beijing.
The US administration views India as a counterweight to China, though in public statements senior officials insist the new strategy is not meant as a challenge to Beijing.
Panetta’s visit follows India’s successful test launch in April of a new missile capable of delivering a 1 tonne nuclear warhead anywhere in China, marking a major advance in its military capabilities.
India views the rocket as a boost to its regional power aspirations and one that narrows — albeit slightly — the huge gap with China’s missile arsenal.
India is investing in military hardware to modernize its armed forces, and the US has become one of its major arms suppliers, with US$8.5 billion in sales over the past 11 years, according to the Pentagon.
Panetta’s trip coincides with two weapons deals that are close to being wrapped up.
India has agreed to buy 145 howitzer guns from the US unit of British arms group BAE Systems in a deal worth US$560 million. And India is close to clinching a US$1.4 billion agreement to purchase 22 Apache attack helicopters manufactured by Boeing, US officials said.