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India rises as strategic US ally

Monday India celebrates Republic Day - and worries neighbors, especially Pakistan.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 2004


Every Republic Day, India struts its military stuff, dragging out the latest ballistic missiles and tanks and parading the finest soldiers on the subcontinent. But Monday, on this year's anniversary, India has a bit more to strut about.

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Just five years after US-imposed sanctions turned India and Pakistan into virtual pariah states for their nuclear-weapons tests in 1998, India has emerged as America's "strategic partner" in South Asia. Far more than its alliance with Pakistan to hunt down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants, America's new relationship with India is a broad security, political, technological, and economic arrangement on par with America's relationship with Europe or NATO. The US is even talking about sharing roles in joint space missions.

In speeches over the last week, President Bush, Colin Powell, and other US officials have lauded India's new position in the world and growing economic importance on the global stage. Separately, US officials have talked of India's common interests in protecting sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, an area that India already patrols with its blue-water navy.

Call it the outsourcing of global security, with India once again getting the job.

"If you're looking at the security of the oil lanes or the sea lanes of Southeast Asia or the relationship with China, there's a natural convergence of interests from the US and India on all this," says K. Santhanam, director of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a government think tank in New Delhi.

It's a situation that has many of India's neighbors, primarily its nuclear rival Pakistan, wringing their hands.

After Sept. 11, Pakistan reaffirmed its longstanding alliance with the US by severing ties with Afghanistan's Taliban regime. As a result, the US is giving some economic incentives to Pakistan, but the arrangement falls short of America's accelerating relationship with India.

That's partly due to the same trade opportunities and shared values that the Clinton administration saw when it began to strengthen US ties with India - a move stunted by the 1998 nuclear tests.

The war on terror has also stretched the American military thin with two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and delegating the safety of South Asia to a strategic partner certainly makes sense. And for India, it's a welcome recognition that India is a global player.

In the past year, the US and India have conducted some 17 different exercises together. In addition, the US has sold $200 million in major weapons systems to India. Using America's Q-37 fire-locating radar, Indian artillery units in the northern state of Kashmir can now locate and destroy Pakistani artillery units on the other side of the cease-fire line before the Pakistanis have a chance to move.

Upcoming arms sales could include P-3 Orion aircraft, a maritime-based plane used for surveillance, and some of the equipment used by American special forces soldiers, such as rifles, parachutes, light-weight bulletproof jackets, and night-vision goggles.