WASHINGTON– U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves for India on Thursday on a high-profile mission to deepen ties and dispel any doubts about the U.S. commitment to New Delhi under U.S. President Barack Obama.
Despite Obama's early focus on fighting the Taliban insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, aides say they fully understand India's importance as a rising major power and they want to strengthen all aspects of the relationship.
Everything is on the table, Clinton said on Wednesday. We're going to do everything we can to broaden and deepen our engagement.
U.S. officials hope they will come away from the trip, which includes two nights each in Mumbai and New Delhi and a visit to Thailand for a regional conference, with tangible accomplishments in at least three areas:
-- signing an agreement to ensure that U.S. arms technology sold to India does not leak to third countries, a step required by U.S. law for arms sales by U.S. corporations;
-- India's announcement that it has reserved two sites for U.S. companies to build nuclear power plants, which could be worth as much as $10 billion in business for American firms;
-- establishing a strategic dialogue between the two countries to be led by Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna.
All three, likely to be unveiled when Clinton visits New Delhi on Monday, could demonstrate that Obama's commitment to the relationship equals that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
'INDIA'S RISE ON THE WORLD STAGE'
Bush's signal achievement with India was to secure an agreement that ended a three-decade ban on nuclear commerce with New Delhi, helping India to meet its vast energy needs while opening a market worth billions to foreign companies.
With the Bush administration, the policy was clearly that we supported India's rise on the world stage, said South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation think tank.
Coming out of the Obama administration, there has been more focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan and that worries some Indians that the policy toward the whole region will be driven by U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she added.
U.S. officials played down Clinton's decision to skip India on her foreign first trip as secretary of state in February, when she visited China, and said they were constrained in approaching India ahead of its May parliamentary elections.
They also said they want to further cooperation in areas such as agriculture, education, counter-terrorism and defense.
NORMALIZING INDO-PAKISTANI TIES
Relations between India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947 over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, is one of the most nettlesome issues Clinton will discuss.
Indian officials are angry at what they see as Pakistan's failure to act against the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group India blames for last year's attacks on Mumbai, which killed at least 166 people.
Despite this dispute, which threatens to delay any formal resumption of a peace dialogue between the two countries, the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers are due to meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt on Thursday.
The United States is keenly interested in resumption of talks between the two countries to ease tensions on Pakistan's eastern border with India so it can focus on fighting Taliban militants on its western border with Afghanistan.
U.S. analysts expected little to emerge on Pakistan during Clinton's trip, saying the issue is too charged in India to air much in public and that in any case Clinton will want to stress U.S.-Indian ties.
Stephen Cohen, a South Asia specialist at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said that U.S. and Indian officials should be speaking privately about what kind of Pakistan we want to see emerge out of the crisis there.
In addition to fighting the Taliban, Pakistan is grappling with major economic problems and with returning to civilian rule after years under former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Normalizing the India-Pakistan relationship should be at the top of the agenda, Cohen said. Especially now because you have got governments in both countries who would like to do this.
(Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi and Rina Chandran in Sharm el-Sheikh; Editing by Paul Simao)