U.S. goals on menu as Obama dines with India's leader

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 23, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rolls out the red carpet Tuesday for India in the first official state visit of his presidency, but the stresses of a key relationship in a tinderbox part of the world will lie just beneath the glitz and glamour of a state dinner.

Obama will welcome Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with an elaborate state greeting on the South Lawn of the White House, meet with Singh through the day, then host him and his wife at a formal dinner for 400 under a tent erected on the South Lawn.

A key reason for giving the visit the highest diplomatic status is to assure India that it remains a key U.S. partner in South Asia.

"This is a very important relationship with a very important country," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "That's why India was chosen to be the first visit."

Obama's administration in recent weeks has focused intensely on countries on either side of India — Pakistan as part of the war on terrorism and China as a key player in everything from the world economy to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. India regards both neighbors warily, and was keenly aware that Obama played up relations with China during his visit to Asia last week.

Still, the U.S. looks to India as a regional counterweight to China and would like to see India ease tensions with Pakistan so that Pakistan would feel free to move some of its military away from the Pakistan-India border toward Afghanistan to fight the Pakistani Taliban.

In a speech Monday evening sponsored by two prominent policy institutes, Singh urged the U.S. and its allies to maintain a long-term commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan, a reflection of Indian fears that a restoration of Taliban rule could again make the country a sanctuary for Islamic extremist groups that would export their violent ideology throughout the region.

"The road to peace in Afghanistan will be long and hard. But given the high stakes involved, the commitment of the international community must be sustained by firm resolve and unity of purpose," Singh said. "It's vitally important that all regional and international players put their weight behind the government of Afghanistan. This is the only way that Afghanistan can meet the daunting challenges it faces."

"There is no doubt in my mind that if the Taliban and the al Qaida group of people succeed in Afghanistan, that will have a catastrophic result," he said in response to a question.

Prospects for a thaw between India and Pakistan — and a shift of Pakistani troops — appear dim, however, thanks to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, last November.

"The peace dialogue that started in 2004 was torpedoed by the attacks on Mumbai," said Teresita C. Schaffer, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right policy organization.

"India and Pakistan have been exploring ways to restart their back-channel discussions . . . The principal hang-up is the slow and erratic progress of Pakistan's legal actions against major figures accused of involvement in the Mumbai attacks."

India three times has refused to host Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. officials said.

The two leaders are expected to announce at least one agreement, designed to improve cooperation on clean energy, climate change and energy security.

"This will provide a framework for pursuing bilateral cooperation in specific areas," Singh said Monday during an appearance at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

He didn't reveal details of the agreement. Obama is trying to build momentum toward an international climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, next month, but has been unable to deliver either a solid U.S. commitment to cut its emissions — a bill is tied up in the Senate — or win pledges from developing countries such as India to cut its emissions at the same level as already developed countries.

(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

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