Obama hails Manmohan Singh, hails India's regional role

Indu Jain and her husband, Palav Jain, both of Potomac, clutch their programs and flags while waiting for the White House welcome ceremony to begin. At night, the White House assembled an all-star lineup for the state dinner on the South Lawn.
Indu Jain and her husband, Palav Jain, both of Potomac, clutch their programs and flags while waiting for the White House welcome ceremony to begin. At night, the White House assembled an all-star lineup for the state dinner on the South Lawn. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

President Obama on Tuesday welcomed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is in Washington for the first state visit under the Obama administration, and moved to calm India's concerns that the United States is neglecting the Asian power as it seeks closer ties with China and Pakistan, India's competitors.

"In Asia, Indian leadership is expanding prosperity and the security across the region," Obama said after a two-hour meeting with Singh at the White House. "And the United States welcomes and encourages India's leadership role in helping to shape the rise of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia."

Obama's statement appeared crafted to assuage fears in the sometimes prickly nation that his administration is less committed than his predecessor's to a strong relationship with New Delhi. In 2005, President George W. Bush reached a landmark deal with Singh committing the United States to cooperating with India in the development of its nuclear power industry, even though India had detonated a nuclear device in 1998 and has declined to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On Tuesday, Obama said that the United States will "fully implement" the 2005 nuclear accord and that the two countries will cooperate on a "clean-energy initiative." The nuclear deal has been held up partly because it is still unclear how India will handle uranium provided to it by U.S. nuclear firms.

Indian officials and analysts had expressed concern that during his recent trip to East Asia, Obama had failed to mention India in a speech about U.S. policy in the region and appeared to endorse a peacemaking role of sorts for China in India's relations with Pakistan. India views China as a competitor, and Beijing is a strong backer of Pakistan. The Washington Post recently reported, citing accounts written by the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, that China gave Pakistan not only a blueprint for a nuclear device in the 1980s, but also key raw materials to build one.

In statements over the past two days, Singh has joined Obama in stressing the values that India and the United States share and the importance of democracy in helping both countries grow closer.

In that, said C. Raja Mohan, a Washington-based columnist for the Indian Express newspaper, Singh is unique among Indian leaders. "In the past, it was all about post-colonial issues. But Singh has really taken us beyond that," Mohan said. "It's not just that we are poor, Third World, and the West is sitting on us. Singh is signaling that we have a comfort level with the United States that no one else has, and the U.S. should see that."

In remarks before the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday night, Singh took a few not-so-subtle swipes at China that sent titters through the crowd. He noted "a certain amount of assertiveness on the part of the Chinese" over longtime border disputes between the two countries and said that although China's development has been faster than India's, "I've always believed that there are other values which are important than the growth of the gross domestic product."

Among them, he said, are "respect for fundamental human rights, the respect for the rule of law, the respect for multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious rights." He also said he believed that policies pushed by a democracy would be "far more effective than reforms introduced by the writ of a ruling group in a non-democratic setup."

Obama administration officials have said it was no accident that India was chosen as the first nation for a state visit. Press secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday called it "a show of respect for the value that we put on that relationship."

The two countries routinely share intelligence, particularly since the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai a year ago. Trade relations, although not of Chinese proportions, are strong; Indian firms have invested more than $10 billion in the U.S. economy; and Indian Americans represent the most successful group of recent immigrants, playing leading roles in Silicon Valley, science and politics.

But both countries start from different places when it comes to climate change, which Obama said was one focus of his talks with the prime minister.

The president said he and Singh made "important progress" toward a greener planet by reaffirming the need for a comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen next month. Singh said that he talked with Obama about India's "ambitious national action plan" and that his country is eager to partner with the United States on clean-energy projects.

Obama also accepted an invitation to visit India next year.

For the state dinner in a huge tent on the South Lawn on Tuesday night, the White House assembled an all-star lineup. Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson, who won for her role in the movie "Dreamgirls," and A.R. Rahman, who won for the score of "Slumdog Millionaire," headlined the entertainment list.

Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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