WASHINGTON — India is a country on the fence.
On one hand, it could become a US partner and bring stability to South Asia. Or, as President Clinton has warned, it could fall into a nuclear confrontation with its neighbor to the west, Pakistan.
When Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee begins meetings in Washington Thursday, US officials will try to make sure the former scenario prevails. Mr. Vajpayee, on a reciprocal visit after Clinton's recent trip to India, will also address Congress and meet with presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.
For Indians, the trip carries great weight - because there is no better measure of a country's standing in the world than how it is received in Washington.
"The primary goal is to consolidate the gains made during the Clinton visit in March," says Kanti Prasad Bajpai, an international-relations expert from New Delhi who is in Washington on a fellowship at the Brookings Institution.
There were no major policy breakthroughs in March, but India benefited from the symbolism of the first visit by a US president in 22 years.
Likewise, meetings this week are expected to focus on feel-good issues like investment, technology and the rapidly growing Indian-American community.
BUT beneath the surface are more serious concerns that will surely be a subtext of any high-level diplomacy. Most immediately, Indian officials want the US to remove economic and trade sanctions that were put in place after New Delhi tested nuclear weapons in 1998. A State Department official says the sanctions are likely to remain in place, however, until India signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While the US has signed the treaty, the Senate did not ratify it, making it hard for Washington to press that point.
In the long term, India, with a population just over 1 billion and a rapidly expanding economy, is looking to be recognized as a global power. One of its desires is a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Although American officials do not rule out such a move, they argue it should only happen if India complies with international nuclear standards, such as a moratorium on testing and tight security of its nuclear technology and materials.
"We believe that all permanent members of the Security Council should be full participants in global nonproliferation regimes," a State Department spokesman explains.
Another issue India needs to resolve before it gains international stature is the dispute in Kashmir. The Himalayan land is contested by India, Pakistan, and a significant number of locals who want independence. The fear is that low-intensity fighting there could escalate into a nuclear war.
"It's a dangerous area not because either country wants to stumble into war, but because of the danger of a miscalculation," says Teresita Schaffer, the former top State Department official for South Asian affairs.
Although Pakistan has asked the US to mediate the dispute, Washington has stayed out of the issue - at least publicly - because New Delhi says it does not want outside interference.
Aside from security concerns, which may take decades to resolve, analysts say the Clinton administration has made strides in improving relations with India, which leaned toward the Soviet Union during the cold war. The US is India's biggest foreign investor, and in March the two countries signed nearly $4.4 billion in business accords, primarily in the high-tech field.
"When Clinton writes his memoirs, he will be able to say that in the last part of his last term he managed the relationship with India very well," says Stephen Cohen, who is a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution.
But some observers, such as Ms. Schaffer, point out that most of America's dealings with India have been brought on by crises, not steady diplomacy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society