Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to discuss the sale of sophisticated missiles and other weapons to India and Pakistan during a brief visit next week.
Critics in the South Asian nations raised concerns that the potential sales could further fuel a regional arms race and political instability while the two rivals hold delicate peace talks.
Indian officials plan to discuss with Rumsfeld a possible purchase of the Patriot missile system when he visits New Delhi on Thursday, according to media reports here. The Patriot is a ground-based missile system that can defend against ballistic and cruise missiles and aircraft.
His visit comes as Pakistan is negotiating to buy F-16 fighter jets and other advanced military equipment from the United States.
The nuclear-armed South Asian nations, which have fought three wars in the last five decades and remain at odds over the territory of Kashmir, are already developing new offensive medium- and long-range missile systems. The prospect of a multibillion-dollar American arms sale has stirred up opposition on both sides of the heavily fortified border.
In Washington, U.S. officials said Rumsfeld was expected to visit India after traveling to the Middle East and Afghanistan. They would not detail issues to be discussed or say whether Rumsfeld also planned to stop in Pakistan.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was scheduled to meet with President Bush today at the White House, where they planned to talk about terrorism, ties between their two nations and Pakistan's relations with India, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Friday.
McClellan would not say whether arms sales would be discussed, and State Department officials downplayed the prospect. The subject of fighter jets "comes up in the Pakistani press every time there's a meeting between the U.S. and Pakistan," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
In India, the Sunday Express newspaper reported this week that the country's ambassador to the U.S., Ranendra Sen, was in New Delhi to discuss with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the prospect of buying Patriot missiles.
The sale could have political consequences in Pakistan and bolster Islamist parties and other hard-liners opposed to Musharraf's alliance with the U.S., said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani defense analyst.
The hard-liners, who argue that the U.S. is pro-India, are pressuring Musharraf to abandon the slow-moving peace negotiations with New Delhi. Musharraf has sought, through the talks, to resolve the conflict over Kashmir, but India has focused on improving trade ties, cross-border travel and other confidence-building measures.
Musharraf, who has expressed his impatience with the talks, would have more difficulty defending them if his country perceived a major U.S.-India arms deal as shifting the military balance further in India's favor.
"Definitely this would encourage Pakistan's hard-liners, who believe that the current peace process should not be pursued," Rizvi said.
Pakistan's likely response would be to ask for more sophisticated weapons to counter India's defenses, he said. Pakistan reportedly wants to buy up to 25 of the F-16s, which cost around $25 million each, by mid-2005.
On Monday, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan warned that introducing more sophisticated weapons to the region "could accentuate an arms race, which we should avoid at all costs."
At a news briefing in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, Khan hinted that the issue would come up during Musharraf's meeting with Bush.
India has been making plans to buy an advanced air defense system for the last few years and is also considering the Israeli-made Arrow missile, said Dipankar Banerjee, a retired Indian army major general.
If India chooses the Patriot, it would be the country's most significant purchase of U.S. arms after decades of relying on Russia and the former Soviet Union for weapons, he added.
Banerjee, who heads the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, said Pakistan's objections would not affect India's determination to defend itself against missile attacks.
But he acknowledged that Pakistan was likely to respond by building up its offensive capabilities and improving its chances of overwhelming India's defense systems.
"There is no doubt that the introduction of advanced weapons systems in the region would, quite often, lead to a competitive weapons acquisition by Pakistan," Banerjee said. "But, on the other hand, Pakistan has already been assured a very substantive amount of military equipment from the U.S."
On Nov. 16, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that it had notified Congress of a possible sale of $1.2 billion in arms to Pakistan, including 2,000 advanced TOW antitank missiles, six Phalanx Gatling guns to protect naval ships, and eight Orion P-3C surveillance aircraft, which could be armed with air-to-ground missiles and other weapons.
"The command-and-control capabilities of these [Orion] aircraft will improve Pakistan's ability to restrict the … movement of terrorists along Pakistan's southern border and ensure Pakistan's overall ability to maintain integrity of their borders," the agency said.
India, which is also interested in buying Orions, thinks the aircraft is poorly suited for patrolling the rugged mountains of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and probably would be used to confront Indian naval vessels.
Washington's offer to sell Patriots may have as much to do with American trade interests as geopolitics, given the competition from Israel's Arrow missile system, said Indian political expert Bharat Karnad of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research.
But Karnad, a nuclear hawk, suspects that the Bush administration hopes to use the Patriot system sale to persuade India to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and accept limits on the size of its nuclear arsenal.
The administration may be calculating that if India embraces missile defense to protect a relatively small nuclear deterrent, then it may be more likely to join an international ban on nuclear testing, Karnad said.
"Then they could come up and say, 'Look, you've stabilized the situation, so why don't you do a little bit more and reduce what nuclear arsenal you have?' " Karnad added. "All this seems to me to be a bit of scam — a strategic scam perhaps — that is not going to enhance India's security in any way."
Missile defense technology is not advanced enough for India to take the risk on Patriots, Karnad said, pointing to a record of testing and battlefield failures. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, Patriot missiles mistakenly shot down two coalition warplanes, killing an American and two British aviators.
India's budget would be better spent restarting its nuclear tests and building thermonuclear weapons, or hydrogen bombs, that would be many times more powerful than the atomic weapons India now possesses, Karnad argued.
"We have to get on with producing a whole variety of versatile weapons that we do need instead of going in for the defensive systems that won't work," he said.