WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates leaves for India on Monday seeking to strengthen military ties with the rising Asian giant, even as Washington focuses on rival Pakistan as a top foreign policy priority.
The January 19-21 visit includes talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has sought U.S. help getting Islamabad to crack down on Islamic extremists blamed for the attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
U.S. officials, briefing reporters ahead of the trip, acknowledged the meetings would likely touch on tensions between India and Pakistan as well as efforts by both U.S. and Indian militaries to work closer together, including counter-terrorism efforts.
“We obviously share an interest in protecting both of our homelands from attack from terrorist organizations,” a senior U.S. defense official said.
The United States is also calling on allies like India to step up their roles in Afghanistan following President Barack Obama’s decision last month to send an additional 30,000 troops to battle a resurgent Taliban.
“As we are doing more, of course we are looking for others to do more,” the official said.
The trip comes as Washington attempts to bolster nuclear-armed Pakistan as it battles insurgents.
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 with targeting information to help the group plot attacks in India.
The group is blamed for the Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people and further strained relations between India and Pakistan. India sees Islamabad as unwilling to go after the insurgents.
Still, diplomats say the United States and India are enjoying their best relations in decades. U.S. defense officials have repeatedly described India as a global partner with common interests extending well beyond regional issues like Afghanistan.
One area closely watched by investors is India’s growing appetite for arms purchases.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said bilateral trade would be a significant part of conversations in New Delhi.
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.
A U.S. official suggested such defense deals can often bring militaries closer together.
“Really the context is: how do you improve cooperation between our two militaries? Common equipment, common experiences create further opportunities to cooperate with India,” the official said.
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.
And last August, India started field trials to buy 126 multi-role fighter jets.
India’s market reforms in the early 1990s led to a rapid expansion of trade ties with the United States, while the 2008 civil nuclear deal Singh signed with former U.S. President George W. Bush ended the long nuclear isolation imposed upon India after it tested an atom bomb in 1974.
Editing by Todd Eastham