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US-INDIA: State Visit by Singh Could Smooth Bumpy Relations

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Nov 21 2009 (IPS) - The close of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia this week brought rampant speculation about what a new U.S.-China relationship will look like, but next week’s state visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will broaden the focus on the rising powers which Obama must balance during his administration.

Singh’s visit to Washington, starting Nov. 23, will bring attention to India’s status as a rising power and offer Obama and Singh the opportunity to build on ties strengthened by Obama’s predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Items on the agenda will likely include groundwork for the upcoming climate change talks in Copenhagen next month, defence contracts, and moving forward on the civilian nuclear agreement signed last year.

The status given to Singh’s visit – the first official state visit hosted by the Obama administration – and its timing on the heels of Obama’s highly publicised trip to Beijing suggests that the administration is eager to placate Indian concerns that the administration might be focusing on its relationship with China and Pakistan, an important ally to Washington in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, at the expense of a strong bilateral relationship with New Delhi.

Both Indian and U.S. officials have been quick to emphasise the shared cultural and political values between the U.S. and India, the world’s largest democracy.

“In terms of relations with the United States, post-9/11 our relations have grown increasingly close, driven by our common interests and our common values. I think it’s particularly notable that there is bipartisan support both in India and in the United States for expanding our relations,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake on Wednesday.

“In the last administration, obviously, the civil nuclear initiative was probably the signature initiative and played an important role in transforming what was the most significant bilateral irritant in our relations into a significant opportunity for U.S. to work together,” Blake continued.

Indeed, U.S.-India bilateral trade has ballooned in recent years – from 5.6 billion dollars in 1990 to 43 billion dollars in 2008. The Bush administration had ended an embargo imposed in 1974 after India tested a nuclear device kicking a nuclear arms race with Pakistan into high gear.

The civilian nuclear agreement was seen as a major step in strengthening U.S.-India relations and required India to open its civilian nuclear facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The agreement allowed for its military nuclear facilities to remain unaffected.

“Key deliverable sought in this regard, at this time, is the U.S. signing off on an agreement that will put into effect New Delhi’s right to reprocess U.S.-origin spent fuel. Parties are close to an agreement on this front,” said Samuels International Associates’ Sourabh Gupta in the influential Washington newsletter, the Nelson Report.

“There could be no stronger statement of continuity than continued forward movement on this signature Bush administration initiative that was vigorously opposed by some who are now in the current administration,” Gupta wrote.

Obama has had a rough start in bilateral relations with New Delhi, dating back to the 2008 presidential campaign when Obama said one of his most “critical tasks” would be to resolve the Kashmir dispute as part of an effort to bring stability to South Asia.

The comment raised expectations in Kashmir that the U.S. would try to resolve the conflict between the mostly Muslim residents and the Indian government, which has cost 70,000, mostly civilian, lives.

New Delhi took exception to Obama’s statement and further mention of a U.S.-brokered conclusion to the Kashmir conflict had been avoided by the White House until a statement by Obama at a press conference in Beijing reignited Indian concerns.

“We agreed to cooperate more on meeting this goal [of promoting stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan], including bringing about more stable, peaceful relations in all of South Asia,” said Obama at a joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Tuesday.

New Delhi interpreted the comment as referring to Kashmir and the Indian ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying, “A third-country role cannot be envisaged, nor is it necessary.”

Distrust between China and India and Indian discomfort over Obama’s increasingly close relationship with Beijing will no doubt be felt in the meeting next week.

“The Indians have their own concerns with China [such as] Chinese support for Pakistan, China wanting a stake in the Indian Ocean, Chinese support for Burma, etc.,” Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told IPS.

“No one [in the administration] is ever going to talk about the U.S.-India relationship as balancing China, but that’s clearly how a lot of strategic thinkers see it,” Segal said.

The civilian nuclear agreement and the expanding trade ties between the U.S. and India have been the primary talking points and areas where both Indian and U.S. diplomats have tried to focus public attention before the meetings next week.

Obama’s trip to China may have sent a message that his administration was neglecting India, according to some analysts, but the full pomp and circumstance of Singh’s state visit next week may help in smoothing over any hurt feelings.

The visit will conclude with a state dinner on Nov. 24.

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