U.S., India Sign Security Agreement : Diplomacy: Two nations that were once suspicious of each other set a new course on military ties and cooperation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was another of those milestones that show how much the world has changed.

On Thursday, visiting Defense Secretary William J. Perry and India's home affairs minister, Shankarrao Bhaorao Chavan, signed a modest but groundbreaking security agreement between countries that, despite being democracies, have often seemed more like Cold War adversaries than friends.

"This accord is the first important step by India and the United States toward achieving normal security relations in more than 40 years," Perry said.

During the long postwar decades of superpower rivalry, India became one of the Kremlin's most valued Third World fellow travelers, as well as its largest-paying weapons customer.

Apostles of "nonalignment," New Delhi's leaders came to view U.S. aims in their region with suspicion, noting that despite their rhetoric about freedom, the Americans were willing to lavish arms and economic aid on the autocratic military rulers of Pakistan, India's neighbor and archrival.

Those days are fading from memory, said Chavan, citing as proof the pioneering agreement he signed with Perry.

"It brings about the kind of change in attitudes of both the governments to see that we come closer together and forget the past," the minister told reporters after the ceremony.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, to which India was bound by a friendship pact, and the transformation of Moscow's ally into one of the world's most tempting new economic markets, drastically altered the way officials in Washington and New Delhi view the world.

Perry, who flew to the Indian capital Thursday after two days of talks in Pakistan, is seeking vastly better U.S. defense and security relations with both mutually hostile South Asian neighbors, and trying to diminish chances of a fourth war between them.

"We, of course, are fearful that there will be another war in the future and want to do everything we can to reduce the risk of that happening," he said in a speech to employees of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

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As outlined to reporters, the new Indo-U.S. security agreement calls for stronger bilateral military ties and increased cooperation in defense production and research.

Under the accord, officials said, civilians in the Pentagon and India's Defense Ministry, headed by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, will establish a mechanism for regular cooperation.

Their joint group, expected to meet for the first time this spring, is supposed to scrutinize strategic needs in the post-Cold War world and promote the exchange of civilian officials.

Also, officials said, Indian and U.S. military brass will visit each other more frequently, and more elaborate training programs and joint exercises are to be organized.

The agreement also calls for expanded defense research and production. The United States has already provided India with an avionics system and commercial engine for its Light Combat Aircraft program.

But some officials said India's tight budgets, long reliance on Soviet-developed military hardware and the legal limits on U.S. high-tech exports will keep India from becoming a large-scale buyer of U.S. weapons.

"I'm not envisioning that the United States would be proposing arms supplies" to India, Perry said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday after talks with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and other officials.

In Pakistan, Perry and his local counterpart, Aftab Shahban Mirani, agreed to revive the U.S.-Pakistani Consultative Group as a forum for yearly exchanges on security issues, including joint military exercises and officer training.

That forum, founded in 1984, has been dormant since 1990, when then-President George Bush invoked a U.S. law to shut off economic aid and military supplies to Pakistan because of suspicions that it was building or had built a nuclear bomb.

Implementing the Pressler Amendment also stalled the delivery of 38 F-16s for which Pakistan had already made payments. This week, Bhutto insisted that her country receive the jet fighters or get its money back.

After meeting with the Pakistanis, Perry offered the help of a Pentagon agency to search for a third country to buy the disputed planes, so the proceeds could be used to reimburse Pakistan.

That proposal, like the revival of the consultative group, sent signals to Pakistan that, despite the Pressler Amendment, the Clinton Administration is not seeking improved ties with India at the expense of a former Cold War ally.

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