Reporting from New Delhi — India signed five deals Friday to purchase more than $7 billion in hardware and expertise from Russia, including an aircraft carrier, a fleet of MIG-29 fighters, defense and space technology and at least 12 civilian nuclear reactors.
On the minds of both parties, analysts said, was a nation not present at the signing. "China will be the ghost in the room," wrote analyst C. Raja Mohan in an opinion piece this week in the Indian Express.
Having a working aircraft carrier -- India's only carrier, the 50-year-old British-built Viraat, rarely leaves port -- should allow India to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean. India has watched China in recent years forge strategic port alliances with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar as part of Beijing's South Asian "string of pearls" strategy.
China doesn't have an aircraft carrier, although U.S. intelligence reports suggest it could within five years. Nor is it expected any time soon to base military craft in the Indian Ocean. But Beijing is heavily outspending India on defense and is keen to safeguard its seaborne oil trade with the Middle East, a lifeline for its hyper-charged economy.
"China is not now in the Indian Ocean, but we don't know what will happen in 15 years," said Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Indian brigadier general and head of Security-Risks.com, a military analysis firm. "They've already showed their capabilities in the Pacific, and we need to be ready."
Russia is also concerned about China's expansion. Although Moscow and Beijing recently settled several long-simmering border disputes, China's growing economic and political clout has Russia looking over its shoulder, particularly amid fears of encroachment in its sparsely populated Far East region.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who met with senior Indian officials, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, wants India-Russia trade to expand to $20 billion a year by 2015 from the current $8 billion.
Russia sees India as a strategic counterweight to China. Moscow and New Delhi also have a shared interest in tamping down regional violence, drug production and Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia.
As China and the rest of East Asia grow ever-thirstier for energy, the Indian Ocean has grown in strategic importance. About 60% of the world's oil moves past India's shores.
The Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov is slated for delivery in 2012 with a complement of 45 MIG-29 fighter jets. Having the ship also will allow India to send adversary Pakistan a message when it sees fit. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought threemajor wars since their division in 1947.
"A carrier puts constraints on whatever Pakistani naval capacity, especially if they come close to our shores," said Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian foreign secretary. "We can keep watch on Pakistani subs and other boats they have that may be up to no good."
Friday's carrier deal follows years of broken promises and hurt feelings. In 2004, Moscow agreed to sell the carrier and 16 MIG-29 fighter jets for $1.5 billion.
Three years later, however, it upped the price to about $2.5 billion. India stewed, but eventually -- with few alternatives and the Viraat rapidly becoming a museum-in-waiting -- agreed to Friday's estimated $2.34 billion price tag.
Russia has for decades supplied about 70% of India's military hardware. Indian attempts to develop indigenous weapons programs have been beset by technical problems, cost overruns and lapsed deadlines.
In the last decade, India has acquired more U.S. and Israeli weaponry. But its arsenal of Russian weapons guarantees significant contracts for Moscow to provide maintenance, replacements and parts for some time.
India also agreed Friday to acquire 29 additional MIG-29s for $1.9 billion. The two nations are mulling joint development of a military transport aircraft and a fifth-generation fighter.
Putin also played salesman for his nation's MIG-35s. India's air force is shopping for 126 fighter jets, valued at about $11 billion. International rivals for the contract include Lockheed Martin's F-16 and Boeing's Super Hornet.
On the civilian nuclear front, Russian and French firms enjoy an advantage, given that U.S. companies were not allowed to supply reactors and related technology until 2008, when Indian and American officials hammered out a civilian nuclear agreement.
Energy-hungry India is expected to sign at least $150 billion worth of nuclear power deals in coming decades. State-backed Russian firms are already involved in building four reactors here and are looking for more opportunities.
"We need energy from anywhere and everywhere," said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation, a think tank. "Russia has been a source for a long time, although I'd imagine India's direction should also energize the industry in America."
Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.