Time running out on n-deal: Gates

February 28th, 2008 - 12:14 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
(Roundup, combining different series)

New Delhi, Feb 27 (IANS) US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Wednesday that “the clock is ticking” on the nuclear deal with India, even as New Delhi assured Washington of an equitable share of Rs.155 billion ($4 billion) this country will spend on arms purchases in the near future. During his visit, aimed at pushing forward arms sales and defence ties independent of the nuclear deal, Gates called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Defence Minister A.K. Antony and told them about a strong bipartisan consensus in the US not only for the nuclear deal but also for bolstering the India-US strategic and economic partnership.

Speaking to reporters on the nuclear deal, the Pentagon chief said: “The real key here is providing time for our Senate to ratify the final arrangements… The clock is ticking in terms of how much time is available to get all the different aspects of this agreement implemented.”

At the same time, he expressed understanding of the domestic political compulsions in India that have stalled the deal, which aims at ending the country’s decades of nuclear isolation.

Saying that the US was “respectful of the domestic political issues here in India”, Gates added: “Let the government in India be the best judge of how to move this agreement forward.

“With this being an election year, there is an open question about how long the Senate will be in session beyond this summer and September,” he added in the same breath.

In contrast to the three US senators who visited India recently and set a May-July deadline for India to wrap up the deal, Gates was, however, careful not to talk in terms of a deadline to avoid giving the impression that the US was trying to dictate to India.

The nuclear deal figured prominently when Gates called on Leader of Opposition in parliament L.K. Advani for a 40-minute one-on-one meeting.

No press statement was issued after the meeting, but sources in Advani’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the nuclear deal was the main topic of discussion.

Reliable sources said the US government had sought a meeting with Advani, who is also the prime ministerial candidate from the BJP, to convince him of the importance of passing the nuclear deal before June.

The BJP is opposed to the draft of the deal.

During the meeting with Antony, Gates was told in no uncertain terms that “America will find a level-playing field” in the Indian arms market, an official said, adding: “It was an extremely constructive interaction.”

On his part, Gates expressed happiness over a $1.1 billion Indian Air Force (IAF) order for six Hercules C-130J transport aircraft and hoped American companies would get a “fair chance” in bidding for the 126 multi-role combat aircraft the air force intends to purchase, the official added.

Antony assured Gates that the two US contenders - the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16 - would be given equal opportunity along with the four other aircraft in the fray.

“Gates didn’t push for arms sales but saw the distinct possibility of this opening up. He was keen on increasing the scope of our defence cooperation,” the official said.

On his part, Antony pointed to the close India-US engagement through forums like the Defence Policy Group, the Joint Working Group on Defence, the Military Cooperation Group, the Joint Technical Group and the Executive Steering Groups at the military-military level, saying that all of them had been meeting “without slippages”.

“This degree of engagement hardly exists with other countries,” Gates responded.

Differences, however, persist on three agreements the US wants India to sign and Antony assured Gates these would soon be resolved, the official said.

These relate to an end-user agreement governing India’s purchases of US military hardware, and a Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) that would come into play when Indian and US forces conduct war games or stage joint missions in the wake of natural disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The third is the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) that will enable the Indian armed forces access fuel, food and non-lethal equipment while operating overseas in cashless transactions that will be balanced at the end of the year by granting US forces the same facilities while transiting through India.

In reply to a question, the official said the US had “never offered” the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk that is about to be decommissioned.

“In any case, it’s not feasible for us to buy a 90,000 tonne ship as this would require extensive refitting at our docks,” he pointed out.

Significantly, there were no discussions on a joint missile defence system that the US is keen on developing with India.

Earlier, Gates laid a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial to the unknown soldier at India Gate. He was also presented a guard of honour when he arrived at the defence ministry at South Block for the meeting with Antony.

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