By Gautam Datt, India Today
As China views Washington's new military strategy focused on the Asia-Pacific with suspicion, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday identified India as the "linchpin" in its latest game plan in which the region will be packed with more forces.
Panetta, who is on the last leg of his significant Asia tour which has evoked great interest because of the new strategic vision unveiled recently, elaborated on the Barack Obama administration's military rebalancing policy that, he said, hinged on five principles. They are: maintenance of agile, flexible and deployable force, developing ability to take part and win two conflicts at a time, invest heavily in cyber security, space and special forces, focusing on North Korea and West Asia and maintain presence from Latin America, Africa, Indian Ocean to Europe.
Identifying New Delhi as a key partner, Panetta said Washington will seek to transfer sophisticated military equipment to the Indian armed forces and steps were being taken to cut bureaucratic red tape that comes in the way of exchange of hi-tech weapons and systems.
Panetta said he has asked deputy secretary Ash Carter to lead efforts in the Pentagon to ease rules and hoped that India, too, would take similar measures to amend its rules. The new push being given to the re-balancing policy also meant that the US was no more pressing India to sign key pacts such as the Communication Interoperability and Security memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and agreement for geo-spatial cooperation that were earlier regarded as foundation agreements for strengthening Indo-US defence cooperation.
India was opposed to these pacts as it had found its provisions intrusive. The US defence secretary has now clarified that these would not come in the way of taking military ties to a new level.
"We have also increased our defence relationship from virtually nothing early in the last decade to sales worth over $ 8 billion today," he said emphasising the US is determined to sell whatever it can to India.
Panetta said the Obama administration "is hard at work on export control reforms in cooperation with Congress in order to improve our ability to deliver the best technologies even more quickly".
Defence Minister A. K. Antony, who had detailed discussions with his US counterpart, conveyed India's position on the South China Sea where China is flexing its muscles. Antony told Panetta that India supports unhindered freedom of navigation in international waters for all.
He also had a word of caution on the new US policy for the region. Antony said that the multilateral security architecture in the Asia-Pacific should be strengthened and advised that Washington should move at a pace comfortable to all countries.
Panetta, who delivered a lecture at Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, a government think-tank, after wrapping up meetings in South Block, said the new US initiative meant Washington was not looking for military bases in the region. It wants to make friendly countries more capable by giving them the latest technology so that they can maintain peace.
He also clarified that increasing the strength of forces in the Pacific meant positioning six US aircraft carriers in the region out of the existing fleet of 11. It would also have a rotational policy for the deployment of marines who will be operating from traditional bases in South Korea, Japan, Phillipines and Australia.
In his discussion with Indian interlocutors, emphasis was also given on the situation in Afghanistan and relations with Pakistan. Panetta said he had urged the Indian leadership to continue with additional support to Afghanistan through trade and investment, reconstruction and help for security forces.
The US said that its relationship with Pakistan was complicated but it will continue to engage Islamabad. He defended the drone attacks in FATA claiming the US was defending its own sovereignty.