Defense Secretary Gates meets with leaders in India

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, moving to deepen U.S. ties to India as a key partner in a turbulent region, pushed Tuesday for expanded cooperation with New Delhi on issues ranging from military technology to cyber-security.

Arriving for a two-day visit, Gates met with top Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and S.M. Krishna, the foreign minister. The trip follows a visit by Singh to Washington in November, the first formal state visit hosted by President Obama.

“This is a growing relationship between the U.S. and India,” said a senior Defense Department official, briefing reporters after the meetings and speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. “We desire to enhance, strengthen our sharing of technology with India; we want to share more information with India, and we want to develop cooperative programs in maritime, cyberspace and space.”

The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has been cultivating relations with India, which it sees as an emerging democratic power and a potential counterweight to Chinese influence in the region.

Officials in New Delhi have accused China of being behind an attack on Indian government computers Dec. 15, the same day Google reported its computers were hacked in an attack allegedly originating from China. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials denied Beijing was behind the attacks.

Both U.S. and Indian officials believe that China is at best an Internet mischief maker and at worst a potential cyber-adversary. U.S. officials hope that stronger ties with India on Internet security issues will benefit the networks of both countries.

The U.S.-India partnership-building is nonetheless sensitive, given China’s influence over the U.S. economy. But Washington wants India’s cooperation on a number of key U.S. foreign policy fronts, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

U.S. officials are concerned that without support from India, international sanctions against Iran would be less effective.

India’s economy, with a large and growing technology industry, is vulnerable to cyber-attacks, and a growing threat from Chinese hackers could push New Delhi closer to Washington.

Intertwined with shared concerns over security is the issue of an expanding defense trade. Defense officials have played down the idea that Gates is in New Delhi to sell weapons systems.

But there was little doubt that one goal of the mission was to lower barriers to greater weapons trade.

During his flight to India, Gates told reporters he would be talking about relaxing export rules so the U.S. could more easily share military technology with India.

The U.S. and India are also negotiating another set of agreements to allow the nations’ militaries to cooperate more closely.

India was buoyed by an agreement on civilian nuclear power during the George W. Bush administration, but it has had concerns that the Obama administration might not follow through.

Gates’ trip is the latest administration move to address New Delhi’s worries since the November state visit, which was overshadowed by a gate-crashing incident at the dinner held for Singh.

U.S. and Indian officials have a close intelligence-sharing relationship, particularly on regional terrorist groups. Defense officials did not detail any discussions about terrorism during Tuesday’s meeting, but Gates had flagged it as a likely issue.

“Perhaps the greatest common challenge India and the United States face is terrorism,” he wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Times of India. “Both of our countries know all too well the terrible human cost of terrorist attacks.”