India doubts strength of US ties ahead of Manmohan Singh visit

Many Indians felt that Obama gave too much deference to China during his recent Asia trip, setting off doubts about whether the US is on India's side. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives at the White House Tuesday.

Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh looks out into the crowd at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, November 23, 2009.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives at the White House Tuesday wondering if his country remains the US priority under President Obama that it became under President Bush.

The Obama administration thought it had answered that question months ago when it announced that Mr. Singh's day of meetings would constitute the first state visit of Mr. Obama's presidency – a distinction meant to convey the importance of the occasion.

But Obama's week-long trip to Asia that ended last Thursday has India questioning anew the value of a US partnership. In particular, the tenor of Obama's three days in China was heard by Indians as American acquiescence to rising Chinese power across Asia.

Now, India wants to know if the Bush administration's recognition of it as the world's largest democracy and as a like-minded partner in a region of extremist threats and authoritarian governance was a quirk, to be replaced by closer US ties to China.

Perhaps at one time Singh's White House meeting was simply "a visit with a band and all that, where the leaders say nice things and move on ... but now we need to test the US-India reality," says C. Raja Mohan, an Indian foreign-policy expert who is a scholar at the Library of Congress. India wants to know "if the last eight years [of strengthening ties] were an aberration.... We have no interest in supporting a US-Sino condominium over South Asia."

On their end, US officials say that the range of issues the two leaders will discuss and the accords they will sign – not to mention the symbolism of a state visit – should allay any Indian concerns.

Obama and Singh are expected to announce joint programs in areas from education to clean energy and security. Intelligence sharing between the two countries has increased since last year's terrorist attack in Mumbai.

The leaders will also try to resolve the final glitches holding up implementation of a US-India civilian nuclear-power deal, which was the hallmark of the Bush overtures to India. The Obama administration wants to nail down guarantees that the nuclear fuel to be provided for power generation does not end up being used for military purposes.

India is also wary of the Obama administration's stepped-up commitments to rival Pakistan, which it believes is still supporting extremists groups as a way to keep India off balance. For its part, the administration is torn over India's growing involvement in Afghanistan in terms of civilian assistance and economic development. Although the involvement offers a valuable economic boost, it also causes misgivings among Pakistani officials and the military.

But what has set the Indians on edge now is the wording of a communiqué issued last week by Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the end of their Beijing talks. The two leaders said their countries "are ready to strengthen ... cooperation in issues related to South Asia." They specifically pledged to "support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan."

That set off an uproar in New Delhi, where even members of Singh's own party questioned whether a declining superpower was bowing to the "core interests" of another country. Indian officials repeated that India needs no outside involvement in its relationship with Pakistan.

US officials say that the communiqué was not intended to signal a recognition of a supposed Chinese sphere of influence. The State Department's undersecretary of State for political affairs, William Burns, responded by saying there is "too much reading into statements."

But Neena Shenai, an adjunct scholar for South Asian issues at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the statement was "certainly not the way to roll out the red carpet for Prime Minister Singh."

Singh will be looking for evidence that Obama values the "strategic partnership" that Bush cemented, Ms. Shenai says. Without that, she adds, Singh risks going home with "at best a sense of [American] ambivalence towards India."


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