President Bush and his policymakers like to stress how much 9/11 has changed America's foreign-policy objectives, but one goal the terror attacks did not alter is to build a stronger partnership with the world's largest democracy, India.
When Mr. Bush arrives in India Wednesday, he will emphasize that same theme - one he has sounded since he was a governor running for president in 2000. At the top of the agenda are a controversial US-India nuclear-power agreement, proposed last summer when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington; security and economic ties; and India's relations with Pakistan, a country Bush will visit briefly on Saturday.
But the specific discussion points, while important, fail to convey the broad geopolitical significance of both the trip and of the administration's intent to forge a strategic relationship.
Closer US-India ties are "one of the most significant developments of the early part of the 21st century," says Kurt Campbell, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here.
Others close to the administration's thinking say India exemplifies what the Bush team sees as the future of a peaceful and prosperous world. Thus, they add, India should be encouraged as a partner.
India is "a compelling example of what [the president] thinks can happen elsewhere," says Michael Green, recent national security director for Asian affairs, pointing to India's established democracy, its "150 million Muslims with no Al Qaeda," and its growing middle class.
US-India relations have seemed to bud before and have suffered "false starts." Now, conditions favor a full bloom, in part because both countries appear to want it, experts say. "What used to be 'estranged democracies' are now 'engaged democracies,' " says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs who has accompanied two former presidents - Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - to India.
"New Delhi has joined the list of capitals to which a US presidential visit is now imperative," says Mr. Inderfurth, now at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
Bush seeks to cement relations with a huge and fast-growing economy, while at the same time building ties with India as a way to influence the other - but communist - giant in the neighborhood, China.
India sees a mature relationship with the US as a way to further its status as a world power - including, it hopes, a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council. India has worked to ease tensions with neighboring Pakistan - a dangerous nuclear rivalry that escalated to the brink of war in 2002, requiring intense diplomacy from the Bush administration and delaying the grand opening to India the president had hoped for in his first term.
Stronger US-India ties would have a geopolitical impact akin to that of the Nixon administration's opening up to China, former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, a member of Bush's original foreign-policy advisory team, said recently.
But like that transformation, US relations with India are not likely to become suddenly conflict-free.
India will continue to develop relations with nearby Iran independent of American priorities, experts say, and its need for energy and raw materials will encourage relations with developing countries, which could place it at odds with the US.
Yet a set of common interests should help the US and India move a relationship long characterized by mutual skepticism into a period of greater cooperation, says Teresita Schaffer, former ambassador to Sri Lanka and now director of CSIS's South Asia program. On her list of common concerns for the two powers: security in the Indian Ocean region; broader Asian security factors, including China's rise; Iran; and "global governance" aspirations.
Though India hopes for Security Council membership, the US is "tremendously not interested in moving that forward," she says. But there are other ways to address India's goals, such as providing a closer link with the G-8 group of advanced economies, she adds.
Inderfurth, however, says Bush "is missing an opportunity to solidify his vision of a global future by not endorsing India for a permanent seat." Noting that the National Intelligence Council, the CIA's think tank, recently concluded that the emergence of India and China "will transform the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century," Inderfurth says that if the Security Council is to "reflect the realities of the 21st century versus those of 1945, how could India not be included?"
Still, the proposed US-India civilian nuclear deal - under which the US would share nuclear technology and fuel with India in exchange for India opening its civilian nuclear plants to international inspection - suggests the kind of tension that is likely to roil the relationship in the future. The Bush administration sees the agreement as a way to reward India for "good nuclear behavior." The deal would also steer a booming economy away from fossil fuels, the White House says.
In both countries, opposition to the deal is centered in the legislature. Some in India's Parliament insist the deal would compromise India's security. In the US, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts has filed legislation to halt it, saying the deal would reward a nuclear power that refuses to join the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and risks causing a nuclear arms race in South Asia.
Despite the controversy, US Ambassador to India David Mulford said Monday he hoped the agreement would be sealed before Bush's visit.
But others say the trajectory of closer relations should trump enabling a Bush-Singh handshake this week on the nuclear deal. "The relationship is too important - and indeed this deal is too important for future energy development and nonproliferation - to rush it," says Inderfurth.