The Reagan administration's first Cabinet-level call on the Indian capital has sharpened Indo-American differences over proposed US arms sales to Pakistan.
The United States is publicly challenging India's contention that the arms will directly endanger its security.
Pointing to India's own large-scale arms purchases and the growth of its military establishment to the fourth largest in the world, US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick said the US arming of Pakistan was neither an actual nor an intended threat to India.
"Our perception of what we're doing and your perception of what we're doing are, to put it mildly, different," Mrs. Kirkpatrick observed wryly at a New Delhi public forum. She was speaking after a day of meetings Monday with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Foreign Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, and Indian defense and foreign ministry officials.
Later, a senior US official who declined to be identified acknowledged surprise at "India's continuing sense of vulnerability to Pakistan," an Indian theme which ran through Mrs. Kirkpatrick's meetings.
"The Indian government's deep suspicions of Pakistan are very strong and apparently unabated," said the official, noting that the Indians had no doubt they would win another round of war with their western neighbor.Partitioned from Great Britain's old colonial empire in the Indian subcontinent, the two countries have fought and won three wars since independence in 1947, and many Indians believe that another is inevitable.
Ambassador Kirkpatrick said she would relay to the President, the secretary of state, and other US policy-makers "the powerful sense that I have developed here of India's conviction that arms we supply to Pakistan are threatening to her."
But it is considered unlikely that India's views will change the US plan to provide Pakistan with $3 billion in military credits and economic aid plus an extra advance sale of F-16 fighter-bombers. The US commitment is billed as a move to strengthen Pakistan's ability to withstand pressure from the Soviet Union, whose troops occupy neighboring Afghanistan, and to resist border incursions.
As Mrs. Kirkpatrick told the New Delhi public meeting, "What you call rearming your neighbors in a fashion that imposes a new arms race on the subcontinent, we call helping Pakistan to have some confidence as it confronts the problems of refugees and the Soviet presence on its own border."
She also pointedly described India as "one of the world's major military powers" and said its military strength had grown "very dramatically" since the last war with Pakistan. Diplomatic observers here have characterized current Indo-American relations as the worst in 10 years, and the senior US official quoted above described them as "at best on a back burner for a number of years and at worst fairly deteriorated."
The Kirkpatrick trip here, part of a six-nation south Asian swing, was intended to lay out the Reagan administration's foreign policy, hear India's views, and dispel the notion that the US is indifferent to the region's concerns. Another aim, the senior official said, was to start clearing up "a complex web of misunderstandings" between India and the US.
The complications include not only the current controversy over arms for Pakistan, but Indian ties to the Soviet Union "which are reflected in their UN behavior," the official said. India was the first noncommunist nation to recognize the Soviet-backed and Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin government in Cambodia, and has twice abstained in UN votes calling for Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Citing both issues, the official said that India sees American policies "as reflexively anti-Soviet. I'm afraid we think of hers as reflexively pro-Soviet and, furthermore, inconsistent with support for national independence and self-determination of peoples."
The senior American official insisted, however, that the Reagan administration does not see India as part of the Soviet bloc.
"Quite the contrary. We wouldn't be talking about close consultation and improving relations with India if we believed that they were part of the Soviet bloc.
"We believe that India is a nonaligned natioin which has in recent years arrived at conclusions which more often coincided with the Soviet Union's than with ours in international arenas," the official said.
One theme Mrs. Kirkpatrick sounded was that the US wanted friendly relations with both India and Pakistan and didn't accept the notion of an either/or choice between the two historic rivals.