Attacks move Pakistan up, India down, on US agenda

Bush still wants to cement ties with India, a rising economic star. But Pakistan offers access to Afghanistan.

The Bush administration's push to vastly improve relations with India, the world's largest democracy, was proceeding at a fast clip - until three hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Now, with Washington needing India's archrival Pakistan on board its war on terrorism, the road to closer US-India relations is suddenly less clear than it was just days ago.

Before the attacks, the US was flattering India with high-level visits, accolades to the growing Indian-American community, and moves to lift sanctions imposed on India in 1998 for testing a nuclear weapon.

In the aftermath, the administration is giving equal priority to Pakistan. On Saturday, President Bush signed a waiver of the 1998 sanctions on both India and Pakistan, which had carried out its own nuclear test.

In the days ahead, relations with India will test how the administration balances a new emphasis on terrorism with standing priorities such as the global economy and democracy. At the same time, the India-Pakistan equation will provide just one example of how countries will seek to play the current crisis to their advantage.

Russia is also keeping an eye on how it can benefit from cooperating with the US against terrorism in South Asia. Among other things, President Vladimir Putin would like that cooperation to yield international recognition that his war against Islamic separatists in Chechnya is justified.

Upon taking office, President Bush acted quickly to elevate US relations with India. Events have forced him to pay greater attention to Pakistan. Last week, Mr. Bush, in commenting on Pakistan's willingness to aid the US in battling terrorism, said the crisis also opened "an opportunity to refashion the thinking between Pakistan and India."

Indian officials have expressed support for the antiterrorism cause, and high Indian officials will be visiting Washington in the days ahead. But the emphasis US leaders have placed on the role of Pakistan in an international strike at terrorism has India worried that its moment in the US sun may already be setting.

The Indian government is troubled that Afghanistan-based terrorists could move from Pakistan to Indian or disputed territories. Indian officials are also troubled about the potential unsettling impact of the international crisis on Pakistan. But "what really worries the Indian government is that this could lead to a revival of a US-Pakistani alliance," says Stephen Cohen, India specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

India's problem is that Pakistan now has more to offer that the US wants - primarily proximity to Afghanistan, which has harbored the prime suspect in the attacks, Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden.

For its part, Pakistan has one eye on India as it responds to US overtures. Speaking to his people last Wednesday, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf was up front: If Pakistan didn't cooperate with the US, India would seize on that to gain the upper hand.

Bush's intentions regarding India were evident early in his administration. He acted quickly to name a new ambassador, sent a string of high-level officials to explore common economic and security interests, and agreed to visit India next year.

'President Bush has a big idea about US-India relations," said Robert Blackwill, US ambassador to India, who spoke earlier this month to representatives of the Bombay business community. The "idea" is "that by working together more intensely than ever before, the ... two vibrant democracies can transform fundamentally ... our bilateral relationship and thereby make the world freer, more peaceful, and more prosperous."

Bush's interest in India also reflects recognition of the fast-growing community of Indian Americans. "India's importance as the world's largest democracy was already recognized under Clinton," who visited India last year, Mr. Cohen says. "But the new factors that Clinton didn't seize on are the growth and prosperity of the Indian-American community, and India as ... a partner for American high tech."

Indian-Americans are one of the nation's wealthiest immigrant communities, and their numbers have doubled in the past decade to 1.7 million. Many are doctors, engineers, and business owners.

At the same time, India, which long held an admiring gaze on the socialist Soviet Union, as well as on that country's global counterbalancing of the US, is coming to terms with American power.

"It took 10 years for India to get used to the end of the cold war, but that has finally happened," says Teresita Schaffer, former ambassador to Sri Lanka and director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The question now may be whether India has warmed to the US just in time to see the US refocus its attention from the global economy to terrorism, and from itself to Pakistan.

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