Reagan team eager to tighten ties with India

The eyes of America are on India. Not only does Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrive this week for his first state visit to the United States and meetings with President Reagan and government and business leaders. But his visit will launch the ``Festival of India'' -- an extravaganza of cultural events expected to fascinate Americans across the country through this and next year.

Administration officials say the Gandhi visit is a routine one and no dramatic results are expected. But given the growing importance of India as the dominant nation in south Asia -- and the ascension to power of a new, more pragmatic leader -- the administration is anxious to improve US-Indian ties and start off the Gandhi-Reagan relationship on the right foot.

According to administration officials, Washington's agenda embraces a number of diplomatic and economic objectives. These include:

Stimulating US sales of high-technology products and weapons to India.

Nudging India to adopt a more westward-leaning policy, thereby reducing its reliance on the Soviet Union.

Encouraging India to play a more active role in such trouble spots of the subcontinent as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Fostering better relations between India and Pakistan with a view to increasing stability in the region.

Diplomatic experts say that handling the Gandhi visit well is a delicate task. Even though US-Indian ties have greatly improved since Indira Gandhi's visit in 1982, the relationship continues to carry the baggage of past irritations, mutual prickliness, and differing geopolitical views and goals. Mr. Reagan and his aides must therefore seek deftly to move things forward without exacerbating Indian concerns.

The administration knows, for instance, that it cannot entirely wean India away from a close tie with the Soviet Union, which is India's principal supplier of weapons and economic aid and serves as a counterbalance to the perceived US-Pakistan-China alignment.

``We can't hope to match Soviet prices and deliveries,'' says a State Department official. ``But the Indians have bought things from the British and French and might not be uninterested in buying some stuff from us.''

At the same time it is hoped that technology sales and more trade will make New Delhi's foreign policy less oriented toward the Soviets.

``We never think of India as nonaligned, but as left of center,'' says another State Department official. ``We would like it to look a little more westward and be more even-handed.''

Despite the eagerness of US business, so far the Indians have not asked to buy US weapons or high-tech products. Recently Mr. Gandhi stated he did not know if India would go in for such purchases, with a view to developing its own defense industry. But, with the Indian economy growing more sophisticated, the administration believes the prime minister must look increasingly to the West for advanced technology. Among Gandhi's activities this week will be a visit to the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston.

``He must recognize that the Soviet Union is not on the cutting edge of technology,'' says a US official. To open the door to high-tech sales, the US and India last month concluded an agreement on safeguards against the transfer of technology. Washington is concerned that US technological secrets might fall into Soviet hands.

The issue of Washington's relations with Pakistan and of Pakistan's nuclear intentions will also be discussed. On the eve of his visit Gandhi again publicly criticized the continuing supply of US weapons to Pakistan, including sophisticated F-16 fighters. He also warned that if Pakistan develops an atomic bomb, India will have no choice but to follow suit -- and could do so in ``weeks or months.''

Sensitive to India's concerns, the administration will try to reassure Gandhi that American arms sold to Pakistan will not be be used against India. It is also trying to persuade Pakistan and India not to jump forward with their nuclear programs.

Diplomatic experts see more promise for better ties in the economic than in the political spheres, given the divergence of views on the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other issues.

``Until the United States and India develop a web of shared interests strong enough to affect each other's views on these central concerns, little more can be achieved than an agreement to disagree,'' writes Thomas P. Thornton, an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. ``The question facing the two leaders is whether they will be able to move on to an agenda that looks to the future rather than the past and has some prospect of creating the web of shared interests needed if the two countries are ever to move forward toward each other politically.''

Among the highlights of Gandhi's visit are expected to be announcements on joint efforts in space, science, and technology. The joint space effort will include putting an Indian astronaut on the US space shuttle in 1986.

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