ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, flying to New Delhi, praised India’s restraint and statesmanship following the 2008 Mumbai attacks and remarked at how both India and Pakistan have kept tensions at a “manageable level.”
Relations between the South Asian neighbors have been strained since India suspended a peace process with Pakistan after the assault on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.
India sees Islamabad as unwilling to go after the insurgents responsible for the attacks, which killed 166 people.
“The bombing in Mumbai was a really terrible event and frankly I believe that the Indians responded subsequently with a great deal of restraint and have conducted themselves in a very statesmen-like manner since that attack,” Gates told reporters on his flight to India for a Jan 19-21 visit.
“Obviously we would hope that there wouldn’t be any more attacks. But I think that even within the framework of that attack and the suspicions that it created, the two sides have managed to keep the tensions between them at a manageable level.”
Last month, Gates told the U.S. Senate he believed al Qaeda wanted to provoke a conflict between India and Pakistan in order to destabilize Pakistan. He said it was providing Lashkar-e-Taiba militants -- the group blamed for the Mumbai killings -- with targeting information to help the group plot attacks in India.
Gates said the United States would be happy to work to help improve India-Pakistan relations, if asked, but added: “I think it’s clear that both sides prefer to deal with this bilaterally and that others not be involved.”
In another sign of tensions between countries which have fought three wars since 1947, Pakistani and Indian forces exchanged fire across their border at the weekend, a Pakistani spokesman said on Monday.
Last week, Indian officials said one of their soldiers was killed in firing across the Line of Control, which separates the two sides in the disputed Kashmir region.
Gates’ visit to India includes talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and comes at a time when India-U.S. relations are at their best in decades.
One area closely watched by investors is India’s growing appetite for arms purchases.
Currently the world’s 10th largest defense spender, India is looking to dole out more than $50 billion over the next five years to modernize its armed forces.
In an editorial for the Times of India newspaper, Gates applauded deepening military ties between both countries and “significant strides in developing a stable defense trade.”
“The U.S. defense industry produces the best products in the world, and using the same platforms also enhances our militaries’ ability to interact and communicate more effectively,” he wrote.
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 noted the need to finalize bilateral agreements, including on technology transfer, to deepen trade relations.
“Not getting these agreements signed is an obstacle to Indian access to the very highest level of technology which they’re interested in,” Gates said. “And so we will be pursuing those agreements.”
Editing by Philip Barbara
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