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As Singh's visit nears, perceived U.S. missteps concern India

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Days before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be welcomed in the White House as the first state visitor hosted by President Obama, two perceived missteps by the Obama administration have Indian officials concerned that New Delhi suddenly has been relegated to the second tier of U.S.-Asian relations.

Singh arrives Sunday on a four-day trip meant to solidify a relationship transformed under the Bush administration by a nuclear cooperation deal, increasing trade and investment, educational exchanges and unprecedented security collaboration.

But Indian officials and analysts say two statements by the Obama administration during the president's trip to Asia, which ended this week, have raised concerns that Washington is leaning too closely to China, India's main regional competitor.

Indian officials note that in a speech on U.S. relations in Asia, Obama did not mention India. Although the speech, delivered in Tokyo, focused on the Asia-Pacific region and not South Asia, Indian officials and analysts said they were concerned that Obama did not recognize India's broader regional aspirations -- something that the Bush administration had encouraged.

Unease over China's role

Indian officials have also raised concerns that in a joint statement issued by the United States and China on Tuesday, Obama appeared to open the door for Beijing to act as a mediator of sorts in the long-term rivalry between India and Pakistan. China and the United States, the statement said, "are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region."

Since the early 1960s, when China and India fought a border war, China has maintained close ties with Pakistan and, according to a recent Washington Post report, is even said to have supplied Islamabad with a blueprint for a nuclear device and the raw materials to explode one.

Vishnu Prakash, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi, said in response to the joint statement that "a third-country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary" to solve the troubles between India and Pakistan. "Obama's China (credit) card casts shadow on PM's US visit," read a headline in the influential Times of India, referring to the $800 billion in U.S. Treasury securities held by China.

U.S. officials have attempted to tamp down India's concerns.

"Of course, the United States is interested in pursuing the best and healthiest possible partnership with China, but that does not come at the expense of other increasingly important partnerships, particularly our relationship with India," William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said Wednesday.

Asked about the joint statement with Beijing, he said it was "a very straightforward expression of that we look to China, we look to India, as many other countries in the world, to contribute to stability in Afghanistan."

Ashley Tellis, a former State Department official now at the Carnegie Endowment, said he had detected in India "a sense of exclusion that's been gnawing at them since the Tokyo speech." He added: "The joint statement prompted new fears that somehow the United States and China would collude to manage events in South Asia."

Tellis said this has caused particular neuralgia in India because tensions between Beijing and New Delhi have risen recently over competing border claims. In addition, Indians are concerned that the Obama administration, unlike the Bush administration, views India as part of the South Asian problem, which includes the war in Afghanistan and instability in Pakistan.

Finally, he said, the joint statement recalled a U.S.-Chinese effort against India in July 1998 soon after New Delhi had conducted a nuclear test. In that statement, Washington and Beijing also agreed to work to pressure India and Pakistan.

"That statement drove the Indians crazy," Tellis said, "because the Chinese were a party to the problems in South Asia."

'Transformed' alliance

That said, most analysts and officials believe that the problem -- at the root -- is one of perception and perhaps the product of a relatively new, overworked staff in the White House not yet accustomed to the prickly world of relations with New Delhi.

"The froth and boil of the moment notwithstanding, the U.S.-India relationship that I know is a totally transformed creature," said Frank Wisner, who served as ambassador to New Delhi from 1994 to 1997. He recalled that when President Bill Clinton hosted then-Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao in May 1994 in Washington, "about the only thing he and Rao had to talk about was almonds."

Today Indian investment in the United States amounts to more than $11 billion, and bilateral trade has more than doubled to $80 billion over the past decade. India has more students in the United States than any other country, and the United States hands out more visas to India for highly skilled workers than any other country. Intelligence cooperation, spurred by terrorist attacks in Mumbai last year, occurs on a "daily, monthly and weekly basis," U.S. Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer told reporters in India on Wednesday.

To signify the growing closeness, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent four days in India in July, meeting with a wide spectrum of Indian society, from billionaires to women making a dollar a day. She purposely did not schedule a stop in neighboring Pakistan, intending to demonstrate that India was in its own league in South Asia.

Clinton's efforts appear to have been forgotten in light of Obama's Asia trip. C. Raja Mohan, a Washington-based columnist for the Indian Express newspaper, said he was glad the controversy had ignited before Singh's visit.

"It gives us a chance to address this issue honestly and openly," he said.

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