(Reuters) - India has offered to significantly increase an order for U.S. attack helicopters, Indian officials said, as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began a visit to New Delhi on Thursday aimed at boosting defence and strategic ties.
The Apache gunships and a deal for Chinook helicopters, both built by Boeing, will top the agenda in Hagel's talks on Friday with the new administration led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India has offered a follow-on order of 39 AH-64D Apache helicopters in addition to the 22 now being negotiated, a Defence Ministry official said. The sides have been wrangling over the price of the gunships, however, with the initial deal having been estimated to be worth $1.4 billion.
The two countries have rapidly expanded military and business ties in recent years, despite discord over issues such as intellectual property rights and market access.
Washington is keen to step up cooperation across the board, seeing India as a strategic partner in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
According to defence research firm IHS Jane's, India was the top foreign buyer of U.S. arms last year. An Apache deal would be the first big military contract since Modi's government took office in May.
Hagel's trip follows one by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week and is part of the build-up to talks between Modi and President Barack Obama in Washington in September.
Hagel's talks will also cover military exercises and co-production and co-development of armaments and the renewal of a 10-year defence cooperation agreement that runs until 2015.
Hagel said the purpose of his visit went beyond arms sales.
"Our interests are varied and common - stability, security, economics, possibilities, freedom," he said en route to India. "I'll be there, working, yes, our specific issues, but it's larger ... than that."
"WE NEED PARTNERS"
Hagel said Asia-Pacific was a region of great opportunities, but also of challenges. "We need partners. We need relationships. That's the kind of world we live in, and that's the kind of world that we're going to be living in."
Speaking to reporters on his plane, Hagel was asked about India's apparent reluctance to be seen as a full U.S. ally and he replied that Washington was "mindful" of India's tradition as a independent, non-aligned state.