US, India Maintain Good Military-to-Military Relations

US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta meets with Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon in Delhi, India, June 5, 2012

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NEW DELHI – Military-to-military relations between the United States and India have gotten so good there is literally nothing leaders cannot talk about, including an increased Indian role in Afghanistan, US defense officials said here on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta will meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s national security advisor, on Tuesday, and Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony on Wednesday. Panetta will also deliver a speech at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis tomorrow.

Officials speaking on background said Panetta would emphasize three themes during his visit. The first — rebalancing US military power to the Asia-Pacific — continues a message his trip to Singapore, Vietnam and now India is designed to highlight.

India was the only country mentioned by name in the new strategic guidance first promulgated in January. Panetta’s meetings with Indian leaders and his speech are designed to provide options and encourage discussion, a senior defense official said. The speech specifically will point to how critical India is to promoting peace and stability in the region.

The United States and India share many of the same values and those values are represented by key principles, officials said. These principles are the rule of law, adherence to international norms and standards, freedom of navigation, the right for countries to pursue their economic interests unfettered and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

“It’s only natural as India plays a more active role in the broader Asia-Pacific region, that we would partner with India,” the senior defense official said.

The second theme of the engagement lies in India’s critical location as the crossroads between East and West Asia. “Not only do we value India’s partnership in promoting stability and prosperity in East Asia, but also the peace and stability in Afghanistan and South Asia more generally,” the official said.

In the past decade, India has not played a large role in Afghanistan, but it has steadily increased economic investments in the country. The official said the United States welcomes India playing a more active political and economic role in Afghanistan. “We welcome India’s contributions to training the Afghan national army and Afghan national police,” he said.

The official said there is always the chance that the historic distrust between India and Pakistan could spill over if India helps Afghan national security forces, but “this is not predestined, this does not have to be the case,” he said. “India and Pakistan share an interest — the same interest we have — of peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

All nations of the region and international allies of Afghanistan need to work together to “harmonize” approaches to Afghanistan, the senior defense official said.

The third theme Panetta will stress is the bilateral defense relationship between India and the United States. Over the past 10 years the defense relationship between India and the United States has steadily improved. US and Indian service members now regularly exercise together and there is a robust exchange program between the two militaries. And US-India military exercises have increased in scope and complexity over the years.

In 2011, the US military conducted more than 50 significant military activities with India, and Panetta would like to see these exercises become larger and more challenging to both militaries.

India is a valued customer as well. In the past 11 years, India has bought around $8.5 billion worth of defense equipment from the United States. “India has a large military and each of its services is modernizing,” the official said.

The bottom line of Panetta’s visit to India is that it allows him to consult with Indian officials on a full-range of subjects. “There is nothing that we can’t discuss with India,” the official said. “We look forward to harmonizing our approaches with India and other countries in the region.”

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