US to push India, Pakistan thaw during Rice trip
NEW DELHI - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, due in New Delhi later on Tuesday on the first leg of an Asian tour, was expected to nudge India and Pakistan further down a year-old peace process.
Rice, who is to hold talks with Indian leaders on Wednesday, could also signal U.S. willingness to sell F-16 fighter jets to both India and Pakistan, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Sales of the fighter jets would be a major policy shift for the United States and a final step toward tacit acceptance of both countries' possession of nuclear weapons, the paper said.
Tensions between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars and were on the brink of another in 2002, have eased since they began talks last year aimed at ending half a century of animosity.
After months of wrangling, the neighbours are preparing to launch a bus service across disputed Kashmir in April, one of the most potent signals that they are keen to build trust and end decades of conflict over the Himalayan region.
New Delhi is also getting ready to host Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as their national cricket teams play a series in India in a new spirit of warmth.
"America will be pleased where this is going," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, head of the Centre for Policy Research, an independent New Delhi think-tank. Washington has all along encouraged the process without playing any visible, formal role.
"There will be stock-taking of where India and Pakistan stand today, and the Americans will probably be looking for more steps to move this forward," he said.
Rice, who will travel on to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Northeast Asia, is due to hold talks on Wednesday with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and the chief of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.
"It is a first cabinet-level visit in the second Bush term. There will be exchange of information on the bilateral relationship, regional issues including Pakistan...," Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna told reporters.
Sarna would not say whether India would raise the issue of proposed U.S. arms transfers to Pakistan in the talks with Rice, but added that United States was aware of Delhi's position.
India has strongly opposed the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, after the Pentagon cleared arms sales worth $1.2 billion to Pakistan last year. New Delhi says the planes could only be used against it in a conflict.
Islamabad in turn has said that any move by the United States to sell Patriot anti-missile systems to India would trigger a new arms race in the region, after a U.S. defence team made a presentation last month in New Delhi
"The arms sales is a bit of tricky issue," said C. Raja Mohan, an independent South Asia expert.
"India and the U.S. have to find a way to build defence cooperation, while managing the consequences of F-16 transfers to Pakistan," he said.
A $4 billion gas pipeline from Iran to India could also be on the agenda after Washington, locked in a war of words with Iran over its nuclear programme, reminded New Delhi of its concerns.
Indian Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar said last week that Washington's concerns had been "noted" and hoped that the United States would resolve its concern over Iran by the time India negotiated a deal with Tehran.