ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, March 16 -- Indian officials objected Wednesday to the possible U.S. resumption of F-16 fighter jet sales to Pakistan, even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised the prospect of selling military aircraft and civilian nuclear technology to India.
During Rice's first visit to South Asia since taking office, Indian officials also dismissed U.S. concerns over a pending $4 billion natural gas pipeline project that India is developing with Iran; the Bush administration has accused Iran of having an illicit nuclear weapons program. "We have no problems of any kind with Iran," Foreign Minister Natwar Singh said.
The Bush administration has worked hard to develop closer links with India, in part because, as the world's largest democracy, it is considered a counterweight to the growing regional influence of China.
The relationship with India is complicated by the U.S. support of Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terrorism, but tensions have eased in the past year between the two nuclear-armed neighbors and rivals. For instance, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, plans to attend a cricket match in New Delhi, the Indian capital, on April 17. It would be the Pakistani leader's first visit to India since a failed summit in 2001.
In absence of better missile technology, the F-16 has long been considered Pakistan's most reliable means of delivery for a nuclear weapon, although its missile capability has improved considerably. "We did express certain concerns about certain matters on the defense issue," Singh said. "Our views with regard to F-16 are well-known."
Congress has not been notified about any decision by the Bush administration to go ahead with the sale and has repeatedly warned against selling F-16s to Pakistan, in part because Pakistan has provided little information on a nuclear smuggling ring run by A.Q. Khan, considered to be the father of the country's atomic program.
Rice, who flew to Islamabad for talks Wednesday night with Musharraf and other Pakistani officials, refused to discuss an F-16 deal in any detail, except to say she planned no announcement on her trip.
The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said that during three hours of talks and a dinner with Musharraf, Rice brought up the purchase of F-16s as the two discussed Pakistan's defense and security needs.
Pakistan bought 40 F-16s during the 1980s, but Congress halted sales in 1990 after the country was suspected of possessing a nuclear device. Pakistani officials have repeatedly raised the issue, seeking a reward for their cooperation in fighting al Qaeda.
Pakistan is desperate to modernize its fleet, and would like to acquire about two dozen new aircraft. For the past three years, a U.S. official said, the administration has authorized the sale of F-16 spare parts to Pakistan to allow its older jets to keep flying.
During the talks, Rice pressed Musharraf to provide more assistance in the investigation of Khan's activities. Her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, made a similar request during a trip to Islamabad a year ago.
"On the subject of non-proliferation, they both emphasized the importance of our continuing cooperation to uproot the entire A.Q. Khan network," Boucher said.
Rice also expressed the United States' "firm support for steady movement along a path to free and fair elections in 2007," Boucher said. Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, reneged on a promise last year to give up his position as army chief of staff, and retains tight control.
Before the talks in Pakistan, Rice was asked in an interview by India's NDTV about the possibility of selling F-16s to India and Pakistan. "We want very much for there to be a military balance in the region that preserves peace," Rice said.
Rice told reporters at a news conference with Singh there was "much more we can do" in the relationship with India. She said the United States hoped to enhance defense cooperation, work with India on meeting its energy needs without harming the environment and build commercial and business links.
A senior State Department official said the discussions on energy could include the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India. An agreement with India announced last year began the easing of U.S. restrictions on the export of dual-use items for India's nuclear power, space and high-technology programs as India enacted legislation addressing U.S. proliferation concerns.