US lead up to Pakistan-India card

The Bush administration is maneuvering to balance possible big new U.S. arms sales to India and Pakistan in the new year.

In the past week, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have made separate visits, not announced in advance, to Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

Islamabad will make up its mind in the coming year on a U.S. offer to resume F-16 fighter aircraft sales after a 16-year break, Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said after Cheney left.

Earlier this month, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Kohler, head of the Pentagon's Defence Security Cooperation Agency, said he expected Pakistan to modify buying plans because of the October 8 terrible earthquake.

"We'll get back with Pakistan early in the new year and see what they want to do," Kohler said. Before the temblor, Pakistan had asked about buying as many as 75 new F-16C/D models and 11 refurbished F-16s, Kohler noted in May.

In May, the Pentagon told Congress it was proposing to let Pakistan buy 300 AIM-9M-1/2 "Sidewinder" heat-seeking, air-to-air missiles and 60 Harpoon missiles with a combined value of up to $226 million.

Separately, the United States is poised to push in the new year for major arms sales to India, a hedge against China's growing regional military clout and influence.

The Bush administration is weighing, among other things, whether to let India buy a state-of-the-art radar system as part of a U.S. bid for a potential $5 billion contract to supply 126 multi-role fighters, Kohler said.

The possible supply of Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar, or AESA, would boost U.S. prospects against expected competition from Sweden, France and Russia.

An Indian purchase of either the F-16 or the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet built by Boeing Co., the other U.S. fighter on offer, would cement a sea change in U.S.-Indian bilateral ties since the end of the Cold War.

India is widely said to be interested also in a range of U.S. arms, including P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, PAC-3 anti-missile systems and electronic warfare systems.

Analysts fear U.S. sales could fuel an arms race between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since the 1947 partition of British India, Reuters reports.


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