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Central Asia: Defense Minister Touts India's Potential Moderating Influence In Region

India's defense minister says increased links with Central Asia could play a crucial role in India's economy and security in the years ahead. Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee told a foreign-policy gathering in Washington that Pakistan is the key to expanding trade in the region and that relations between the neighbors, while improving, remained complicated. He spoke ahead of meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Washington, 28 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee says one of India's main strategic challenges is restoring traditional trade and cultural ties with Central Asia.

Mukherjee said in a speech last night in Washington that the region poses security concerns to India. He described it as a battleground between extremism and moderation in Islam, with fundamentalist groups trying to destabilize secular governments in the region.

The defense minister said India -- a huge democracy with the world's second-largest Muslim population -- could have a moderating influence on Central Asia.

"By nature, India is not inclined to export ideologies, even ideologies it believes in and follows. India would rather promote democracy in the region by precept and example. Freer traffic between India and Central Asia would be a factor in favor of moderation and democracy there," Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee spoke to a gathering of foreign policy experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent policy institute. His speech touched on India's strategic goals, including lessening its energy dependence on foreign sources, but Pakistan figured as the key issue. The two countries continue to have sharp differences over the divided territory of Kashmir. On the positive side, they continue to observe the November 2003 cease-fire agreement, and people-to-people exchanges have recently intensified.

Mukherjee also said Indian surveillance shows a reduction in infiltration by Pakistani militants across the border into Indian-controlled Kashmir. But he said it is too early to say the peace process is entrenched.

"The infrastructure for terrorism in Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled territory remains. We do not hear of operations like the ones being conducted by Pakistan, in cooperation with the U.S., against the war on terrorism at its western frontiers, towards its eastern borders with India," Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee, who has held high-level government development posts, said there will only be a vested interest in peace in India and Pakistan when the countries resume bilateral trade and transit.

He said India is also eager to expand ties to Afghanistan, which it has given hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid since the fall of the Taliban regime. "India could do much more, if normal relations and trade and transit through Pakistan could flourish," Mukherjee said. "We are concerned about signs of the resurgence of the Taliban, and the growth in drug cultivation in, and trafficking from, Afghanistan."

The defense minister spoke before the start of two days of meetings with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The U.S. and Indian militaries have considerably expanded cooperation since the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. They have engaged in numerous joint military exercises. The United States is also involved in discussions about the possible sale of weapons systems to India.

Rumsfeld yesterday described the military relationship as "excellent." "We have advanced continuously in the relationship in terms of meetings and exercises and various other aspects of it, and I feel very good about it and very positive about it," he added.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns held high-level talks in India last week that focused on building a strategic partnership in areas such as civilian nuclear energy, advanced weaponry, and missile defense.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to visit Washington on 18 July to discuss the issues further with U.S. President George W. Bush.