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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Richard Halloran

Posted on: Sunday, February 7, 2010

India's rising profile earning attention from United States

 • Ex-POW feels overlooked

The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, was President Obama's first official state visitor. India was an early stop in the travels of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in India just last month to talk with his counterparts. Adm. Robert Willard went to meet with India's political and military leaders in New Delhi only six weeks after taking charge of the Pacific Command here.

For Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, contacts with Indian Army leaders are a top priority; he traveled there last fall. At the same time, Lt. Col. James Isenhower, a battalion commander in the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, led 300 soldiers with 17 Stryker combat vehicles airlifted to India for training. And Maj. Aljone Lopes, a specialist on South Asia, spends his waking hours at Fort Shafter in staff support of the effort to foster military links with India.

That the U.S. has put on a full-court press to cultivate India is thus evident. Gates told the media in New Delhi: "I continue to be impressed by our increased cooperation, cooperation that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago." He said India and the U.S. "continue to look for areas to expand our engagement."

The reasons, say diplomats and military officers experienced in South Asia, are clear:

• India is a rising democratic power that has shucked the constraints of the Cold War, notably its affiliation with the so-called non-aligned movement and reliance on the Soviet Union for military and economic aid.

• Even though Indian and American political leaders profess in public not to seek to contain China, India is seen as a counterweight to an emerging and sometimes belligerent China.

• India has become receptive to American overtures because good relations with the U.S. could give New Delhi the wider access to the international stage that it craves.

• Nascent relations with the U.S. give the expanding India economy access to American technology, business methods and investment.

• India has been looking for a new source of military equipment since Russia, with industrial problems after the breakup of the Soviet Union, had become unreliable. India imports about 70 percent of its military materiel.

• With Pakistan increasingly troubled and faltering in the struggle against terror, India has become a more likely strategic partner for the U.S. No longer does the U.S. deal even- handedly with the two rivals.

• The Indian-American population in the U.S. has grown, in large measure become economically comfortable or even wealthy, and has learned how to influence the nation's politics, to include lobbying in Washington.

Military relations are essential to this embryonic partnership. The soldiers led by Isenhower spent a month in India, most of it in hard training. Once the initial individual and small-unit instruction had been completed, the Indians and Americans swapped units. An American platoon was integrated into an Indian company and an Indian platoon joined an American company.

The Indian government asked the U.S. Army to bring the Strykers, which are relatively new but have earned a good reputation in Iraq. The lightly armored vehicle comes in several versions, one being an infantry troop carrier and another armed, like some tanks, with a 105 mm gun. Presumably, the Indians wanted to compare the Strykers with the Soviet infantry vehicles with which they have been equipped.

Since most Indian officers spoke English, communication with Americans was easy. With Indian sergeants and soldiers, the Americans relied on arm and hand signals, which worked reasonably well. Beyond that, the soldiers depended on their common experience.

As Lopes, the specialist on South Asia, said: "A soldier is a soldier is a soldier."