| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI India may lose its diplomatic restraint with Pakistan after any repeat Mumbai-style attack and militants in the region may use this to provoke the two rivals to war, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.
"I think it's not unreasonable to assume Indian patience would be limited were there to be further attacks," Gates told reporters on a trip to New Delhi aimed at broadening U.S. ties with the emerging Asian giant.
Gates' comments highlight widespread fears among many diplomats that a second attack could provoke India to retaliate against Pakistan, further destabilizing the region and putting U.S. plans for peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan in jeopardy.
His visit comes as Washington tries to strengthen its ties with New Delhi despite fears a stronger Indian presence in the region, especially in Afghanistan, could undermine peace efforts by annoying Pakistan.
"What we talked about at some length is the syndicate of different terrorist groups and how they put all of the countries in the region -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, India -- at risk," Gates said.
"This operation under the umbrella of al Qaeda working with all of these different groups is intended to destabilize not just Afghanistan or not just Pakistan but potentially the whole region by provoking a conflict perhaps between India and Pakistan."
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resisted domestic pressure to attack Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Instead, New Delhi has focused on pressuring Pakistan to crack down on militants blamed for the raids on India's financial hub.
New Delhi is increasingly frustrated at what it sees as Islamabad's failure to bring the masterminds of the attacks to justice. It blames militants belonging to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group for the attacks which killed 166 people.
A growing number of clashes in disputed Kashmir this month and cross-border firing have also added to worries of increased tension between the two nuclear-armed rivals.
Gates is also seeking to strengthen military ties with India. For decades, India had close military links with the former Soviet Union, but under Singh New Delhi has moved closer to the United States.
But there is still skepticism among many Indian policy makers that Washington is primarily focused on supporting rival Pakistan in its battle against Taliban and al Qaeda militants.
While Pakistan may be a top diplomatic priority, India carries increasing weight.
India is one of the biggest donors to Afghanistan, with $1.2 billion in aid, and is also the world's 10th largest defense spender, set to spend more than $50 billion over the next five years to modernize its armed forces.
U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co said this month the Indian Air Force was interested in acquiring 10 C-17 aircraft, in a deal Indian defense ministry officials say is potentially worth more than $2 billion.
Last August, India started field trials to buy 126 multi-role fighter jets.
Gates called on India to sign a defense pact to allow sales of more sophisticated U.S. arms to India.
A key element in the pact would allow Washington to check that India was using any arms for the purposes intended and was preventing the technology from leaking to others.
"It is not an unreasonable request and at the end of the day it is focused on protecting technology of both India and the United States," Gates said.
(Additional reporting Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Paul Tait)