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As Modi prepares for Trump meeting, U.S. expected to OK India drone purchase

Reuters , Friday 23 Jun 2017
Modi
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering after he inaugurated Kochi Metro at a stadium in Kochi, India, June 17, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)
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The United States is expected to authorize India's purchase of a naval variant of the Predator drone, two sources familiar with the situation said, ahead of a visit next week by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to try to revitalize ties in his first meeting with President Donald Trump.

Securing agreement on the purchase of 22 unarmed drones, worth more than $2 billion, is seen in New Delhi as a key test of defense ties that flourished under former President Barack Obama but have drifted under Trump, who has courted Asian rival China as he seeks Beijing's help to contain North Korea's nuclear program.

The deal would still require approval by Congress. California-based General Atomics, the maker of the Guardian drone sought by India, declined to comment.

Modi's two-day visit to Washington begins on Sunday. Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and has also had face time with the leaders of nations including Japan, Britain and Vietnam since taking office in January, prompting anxiety in New Delhi that India is no longer a priority in Washington.

The Indian navy wants the unarmed surveillance drones to keep watch over the Indian Ocean. The deal would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the NATO alliance.

"We are trying to move it to the top of the agenda as a deliverable, this is something that can happen before all the other items," said an Indian official tracking the progress of the drone discussions in the run-up to the visit.

India, a big buyer of U.S. arms that was recently named by Washington as a major defense ally, wants to protect its 7,500- km (4,700-mile) coastline as Beijing expands its maritime trade routes and Chinese submarines increasingly lurk in regional waters.

India already uses dozens of Israeli Heron and Searcher unarmed aerial vehicles (UAVs), but the Guardian operates at higher altitudes and can carry far heavier payloads, offering the navy greater reach.

A source tracking the discussions said the U.S. State Department had dropped its objections to the sale of the Guardian drones to India.

It had been concerned about the potential destabilizing impact of introducing high-tech drones into South Asia, where tensions are simmering between India and Pakistan, particularly over Kashmir, which is divided between them.

Such a sale of sensitive military hardware must be authorized by the State Department before being sent to Congress for review. A congressional source said no notification of a planned sale has yet been sent to Congress, but this could come next week. The State Department declined comment ahead of any notification.

Other strains have emerged in U.S.-India relations, with the United States vexed by a growing bilateral trade deficit and Trump accusing New Delhi of negotiating unscrupulously at the Paris climate talks to walk away with billions in aid.

U.S. officials expect a relatively low-key visit by Modi, without the fanfare of some of his previous trips to the United States, and one geared to giving the Indian leader the chance to get to know Trump personally and to show that he is doing so.

Modi is also not expected to press hard on a U.S. visa program the Trump administration is reviewing to reduce the flow of skilled foreign workers and save jobs for Americans, seeing limited gains from raising a sensitive issue, they said.

FIGHTER JETS

"There is a palpable fear in New Delhi that the new U.S. president's lack of focus on India, and limited appointment of South Asia focused advisors, has resulted in India falling off the radar in Washington," Eurasia Group's Shailesh Kumar and Sasha Riser-Kositsky said in a note.

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