AFP – India, the world’s leading importer of weaponry, opened one of Asia’s biggest aviation trade shows Wednesday with Western suppliers eyeing lucrative deals and a Chinese delegation attending for the first time.
Air Vice Marshal Zheng Yuanlin was heading a five-person group at the five-day Aero India show after New Delhi extended a formal invitation to China in January.
“They’ve confirmed their attendance,” defence ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar told AFP late on Tuesday. “It’s the first time India has invited a Chinese delegation from Beijing.”
The last Aero India in 2011 saw India initially snub China, but the Chinese ambassador in New Delhi was allowed to attend in a negotiated compromise.
Suspicion of China runs deep in the Indian military and hawkish comments from senior commanders often conflict with the political leadership, which tends to stress the need for a partnership between Asia’s two biggest nations.
India and China claim parts of each other’s territory, while Beijing’s military build-up along their frontier, as well as competing interests in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, are frequent sources of friction.
The two sides have held more than a dozen rounds of inconclusive talks to resolve their border disputes, which led to a brief war in 1962.
In a prelude to the decision to invite China to Aero India, they agreed to resume joint military exercises last September following the first visit of a Chinese defence minister to Delhi in eight years.
China’s delegation to the show is dwarfed by attendees from Western nations and Russia who are eyeing deals and partnerships with local suppliers to tap the world’s biggest arms import market.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in March 2011 said India received nine percent of global arms transfers from 2006 to 2010, making it the world’s largest importer of weapons.
New Delhi has budgeted about 1.93 trillion rupees ($36 billion) for defence spending in the financial year through March 2013, an increase of 17 percent from 2011-2012 when spending was hiked by another 12 percent.
France’s Dassault Aviation will be one of the stars of the show as it exhibits its Rafale jet which beat off competition from six rivals last year to be chosen for a $12-billion contract for 126 fighter planes.
Exclusive negotiations are under way to determine the final price and the amount of technology transfers, with the issue set to be taken up by French President Francois Hollande when he visits New Delhi next week.
The Rafale has been active in recent French-led military efforts against Islamist fighters in Mali and was widely used in a NATO bombing campaign against Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
While the fighter deal is the largest on India’s military shopping list, others for helicopters, transport planes, surveillance equipment and missiles have made the biannual Aero India unmissable for global suppliers.
Many of these acquisitions are designed to guard against possible future threats from China — rather than traditional foe Pakistan — and protect Indian economic interests globally as the country extends its influence.
Defence ministry spokesman Kar said the exhibition space was the biggest since Aero India began in 1996.
New Delhi insists that between 30 and 50 percent of military hardware purchased from foreign suppliers is manufactured in India to ensure that technology and know-how is transferred.
Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony is set to inaugurate the show at 0430 GMT and speak to the media two hours later.