On India trip, why Clinton won't stop in Pakistan

The secretary of State will play catch-up on US-India relations, after President Bush's landmark nuclear deal.

There's a good reason why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who begins a three-day visit to India Saturday, is not stopping off in Pakistan while in the neighborhood.

As important as Pakistan is to the foreign-policy priorities of the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton's trip to India will focus on showcasing the American partnership with an emerging economic and democratic 21st century power.

Clinton will no doubt discuss Pakistan and Afghanistan when she meets with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday in New Delhi. But the breadth of the events she will attend and groups she will meet Saturday and Sunday in Mumbai – India's business capital – suggests a desire to demonstrate to Indians that the new US administration envisions a partnership that transcends regional conflicts and acknowledges India's role in addressing global issues.

"The President and Secretary Clinton both see India as a really important partner for us, not only in addressing bilateral issues, but also in … working with us to shape the world of the 21st century," says Robert Blake, assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs.

On Monday, Clinton and India's External Affairs Minister SM Krishna will announce deeper cooperation in everything from military exercises to women's issues, Mr. Blake says, adding that the US aims for "broader engagement … on some of the big global challenges" such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation.

The administration may be aiming high, but it also has some catching up to do when it comes to India, some specialists in the region say.

"This is one area of the world where George W. Bush got it right, so it's going to be hard for the Obama administration to meet some very high expectations," says Karl Inderfurth, director of the international affairs program at George Washington University.

President Bush's focus on India was the "high-water mark" in US-India relations, says Ambassador Inderfurth, who was assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs when President Clinton made his groundbreaking trip to India in March 2000.

Mr. Bush signed a civilian nuclear agreement with India that is considered by many to have laid the foundation of a new strategic relationship between two longtime mutually-wary countries.

But the apparent absence of high-level engagement in the past few months can also be explained, says Inderfurth, by the settling-in of a new US administration and India's elections in May, which resulted in an enlarged parliamentary majority for Prime Minister Singh.

The Obama administration's relations with India – what Clinton calls "India 3.0," after the strides made by Mr. Clinton and Bush – will face three immediate tests: nuclear proliferation, climate change, and international trade.

On nuclear cooperation, the Indian government is expected to use Clinton's visit to announce two sites for US companies to build nuclear power plants – a deal worth up to $10 billion. Clinton will also review US concerns, especially in Congress, over India's trade ties to Iran.

The two countries are unlikely to suddenly discover like-minded views on global issues, regional experts say. "We aren't going to see eye to eye on any of these [issues]," says Inderfurth.

"But we also know that if the US and India are not talking, and trying to find common ground on these issues, they are not going to get solved," he adds.

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