With President Clinton scheduled to visit South Asia in March, US officials are scrambling to come up with a policy that would address new attitudes in India and Pakistan.
The two powers, who analysts say are currently the most likely sources of a nuclear face-off in the new century, have been a diplomatic quagmire for the US since India declared itself a republic in 1950.
Now, with India insisting it be treated as a global power and Pakistan's actions threatening to put it in the "rogue state" category, the region has become even more difficult to manage, analysts say.
Most immediately, the two countries continue to spar over the Himalayan region of Kashmir - a global hot spot that has already caused two wars.
Intense fighting last summer was stopped with behind-the-scenes help from the US, but Washington has no official role as a peacemaker - something Pakistan wants and India refuses. More fighting seems imminent.
The first test US officials face is deciding the nature of the president's trip to South Asia, the first such visit by a US president in 22 years. The White House announced last week there will be stops in India and Bangladesh, but Pakistan is still a source of debate within the White House and State Department.
Pakistan once a strong ally
For Mr. Clinton, it is a classic case of carrot-and-stick diplomacy. India, despite its nuclear-weapons program and aggressive defense purchases, is being rewarded.
"I'm going [to India] because it's the biggest democracy in the world, and I think we haven't been working with them enough," Clinton said. "We have an enormous common interest in shaping the future with them."
The opposite may be true for Pakistan - a country that was a strong ally during the cold war, when it and the US supported Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviet Union - if it is not included on the president's itinerary.
Since the breakup of the Eastern bloc, Pakistan has become less and less strategically important, and has gradually fallen out of favor with the US. It has also maintained ties with Islamic fundamentalist elements in Afghanistan, and has been accused of being sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile who declared war against the US.
"If Clinton doesn't go [to Pakistan], it will signal a major shift in the US's South Asia policy," says Shireen Hunter of the US Institute for Peace in Washington.
On one hand it is apparent that Clinton wants to visit and be a peacemaker - something he has cherished throughout his presidency. And, "seeking peace involves talking to both sides," says a State Department official.
But, on the other hand, Pakistan has become increasingly defiant in recent months, and officials are hesitant to reward its new leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who rose to power by overthrowing a democratically elected government.
The State Department has repeatedly urged Mr. Musharraf to set a timetable for returning the country to democracy - but so far there has been little more from the Pakistan leader than vague assurances. He recently told an Indian television station that it would be at least two years before Pakistan has an elected government.
More recently, his government was accused of supporting Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, the militant group said to be responsible for the December hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet. Officials here have threatened to put Pakistan on a list of states that support terrorism if it does not crack down on the group.
Also, the Musharraf government has drawn US criticism for requiring judges to take an oath of allegiance to the military before sitting on the bench. One judge, who refused to do so before the trial of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was promptly dismissed.
"We do not have a 'business as usual' relationship with Pakistan right now because of our concerns about the coup that took place there and our concerns about these other issues," says James Rubin, a State Department spokesman.
India wants more respect
Relations with India are likewise shaky - but they are moving in a more positive direction.
A country with a population over 1 billion, India could emerge as a strategic friend in a volatile region that otherwise is dominated by China.
Its economy is growing steadily and its government has showed increased stability - even though it has had three national elections in the last three years.
"India still has a long way to go, but at the same time they have come a long way," says Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
But India is making big demands of the international community - it wants great-power status. Analysts say the US could help satisfy that desire by coordinating with India on more issues, by establishing loose ties between defense officials, and by resolving trade disputes.
"Strategically, the United States should regard India not as another South Asian state comparable to Pakistan, but as a player in the larger Asian sphere," writes Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution in a recent report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society