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POLITICS: Singh State Visit Cements US-India Ties

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and U.S. President Barack Obama met in Washington Tuesday as both leaders sought to reinvigorate the U.S.-India bilateral relationship.

The meetings are notable in that they occur a week after Obama visited Beijing, where the White House raised the ire of the Indian foreign ministry after a joint U.S. and Chinese statement said the two countries would, “work together to promote peace, stability and development” in South Asia.

The decision to invite Singh for the first official state visit of the Obama administration is no doubt partially designed to placate Indian concerns that a rising China and a growing China-U.S. relationship might threaten Indian regional influence. An upcoming announcement on U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan – and the White House’s need for regional allies – might be yet another justification for the full red carpet treatment afforded to Singh.

“We discussed my review of our policy in Afghanistan, and I thanked Prime Minister Singh for India’s substantial contributions to the Afghan people,” said Obama at a joint press conference Tuesday.

“It is vitally important that all major regional and international players put their weight behind the government of Afghanistan,” Singh told the Council on Foreign Relations.

India contributes 1.2 billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan, making it one of the biggest donors.

Obama has announced that a decision on U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan is imminent – he held the final meeting of his military review for Afghanistan last night -and it is rumored that a televised Oval Office address will be made on Tuesday night to explain the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Speculation has swirled as to how many troops Obama will choose to deploy to Afghanistan, but recent estimates suggest it will be between 25,000 and 35,000, short of the 40,000 troops requested by General Stanley McChrystal.

Singh delivered on endorsing Obama’s plans for military operations in Afghanistan but it is likely that issues surrounding Pakistan’s stability were part of that discussion.

Pakistani-Indian relations have been newly strained since the Mumbai terror attacks last year, which left 166 people dead.

Pakistan “should be pressurised by the world community to do much more to bring to book all those people who are responsible for this horrible crime”, said Singh on the eve of his state visit.

The U.S. relies heavily on Pakistan for help in fighting Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda forces along the Pakistan-Afghan border region.

The state visit is an attempt to emphasise the U.S.-Indian relationship at a time when U.S. relations with Pakistan and China have received far more attention from the Obama administration.

Overshadowing the state visit is the joint statement put out by the U.S. and China last week effectively suggesting that India’s territorial disputes in Kashmir were within China’s sphere of influence, and the response by the Indian ministry of foreign affairs stating that, “A third-country role cannot be envisaged, nor is it necessary,” in resolving the violence in Kashmir.

“I think that the Indians are pretty upset and never liked discussion of the ‘G-2’ in the first place,” Senior Fellow Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations told IPS.

“The tension is that the Indians see all the talks about [the U.S.] working with China and the ‘G-2’ and the Indians are worried they’ll get locked out of this and ignored in the larger strategic issues,” Segal said.

Washington’s efforts to curry favour with New Delhi and smooth over any bruised feelings from Obama’s trip to Asia last week might be working as The Times of India, India’s most read newspaper, effusively announced Tuesday, “U.S. President Barack Obama hit all the right buttons here on Tuesday to erase any impression that he had downgraded ties with New Delhi in deference to China.”

Singh will leave Washington with the U.S. having reaffirmed its commitment to the civilian nuclear deal which allows the U.S. to sell nuclear technologies to India, a reversal of a 30-year ban on exporting nuclear materials.

Singh announced that although not finished, the deal, “can be completed without much further loss of time”.

“My administration is committed to fully implementing the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which increases American exports and creates jobs in both countries,” Obama said.

Singh’s visit also brought the launch of a series of “Green Partnerships” between India and the U.S.

These will include efforts to build on U.S.-India cooperation to develop clean energy, combat climate change and ensure food security, and support for an Indian National Environmental Protection Agency which will improve environmental governance, regulation and enforcement in India.

Other agreements signed included a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on intellectual property (IP) rights which focuses on enforcement and education; and the Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative which provides 10 million dollars in funding for linkages between U.S. and Indian universities.

Agreements on health cooperation included the creation of a Regional Global Disease Detection Center in India as a part of the Global Disease Detection (GDD) network; the launch of a U.S.-India health dialogue which will hold its first meeting in early 2010; and a new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program to address health problems of the urban poor.

“In our discussions today, we reaffirmed the importance of our relationship and decided on future steps to enhance our strategic partnership,” said Singh at a joint press conference Tuesday.

“We have agreed to further intensify our trade, investment, and economic cooperation in a way that creates jobs and prosperity in both our two countries and stimulates global economic recovery,” Singh said.

Singh’s state visit will conclude Tuesday with the Obama administration’s first state dinner.

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