WASHINGTON: The Trump administration has authorised the sale of unarmed surveillance drones to India but the White House says the deal does not threaten Pakistan’s security.

On Friday afternoon, a US arms manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems In said the Trump administration had approved the sale of a naval variant of the Predator drone to India. The deal involves the sale of 22 unarmed drones, worth more than $2 billion.

US President Donald Trump is expected to formally announce the sale during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House on Monday, which includes one-on-one talks between the two leaders and a working dinner.

Briefing journalists on the first Trump-Modi meeting, a senior White House official said any arms transfer would take into account the regional situation.

The US media described the deal as a major step towards further enhancing defence ties between the United States and India that began under the Bush administration and has continued to flourish since then.

Earlier media reports had suggested that the US State Department was concerned about the potential destabilising impact of introducing high-tech drones into South Asia. Senior US diplomats were also concerned about a gradual increase in violence in the occupied Kashmir and its negative impact on relations between India and Pakistan.

But the senior White House official who briefed the media on Mr Modi’s visit urged Pakistan to engage in direct talks with India to de-escalate tensions.

“We want to avoid a situation that escalates the tension” the official said. “Some of the defence systems we’re talking about we don’t believe impact Pakistan.”

Diplomatic observers in Washington fear the sale will further enlarge the existing strategic imbalance in the region, increasing Islamabad’s dependence on non-conventional means to strengthen its defence.

India, however, claims that it wants the drones for surveillance of the Indian Ocean as the presence of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti poses new threats for New Delhi. The Trump administration too sees India as a key ally in countering China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

The unarmed MQ-9B Guardian drones that India is purchasing from General Atomics is a variant of the Predator B drone and is equipped with several radar systems, specifically useful for maritime searches.

“We are pleased that the US government has cleared the way for the sale of MQ-9B Guardian to the Indian government,” Linden Blue, CEO of the manufacturer, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems said.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2017