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'Obama needs to reassure India on China, Pak'

November 13, 2009 10:46 IST

The Barack Obama administration is honouring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its first state guest later this month, during which 'at least 10-12 agreements and MoUs' are likely to be signed, but it seems that China will be the new 'dragon' in the room when the two leaders meet in the White House.

Dr Singh arrives in Washington DC on November 22, only three days before Obama would have returned from his maiden but extensive Asia tour which begins on November 11, and takes in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea.

The US, keenly aware of the complexity of the relationship between India and China, is describing both countries as 'significant powers' in the Asia-Pacific region. Obama has been careful not to upset Beijing, having refused to see the Dalai Lama on the eve of his Shanghai-Beijing visit from November 15-19, where he is likely to plead for more balanced growth. China's trade surplus with the US stands at $22.99 billion.

So when Manmohan Singh meets Obama at the White House on November 24, "at least 10-12 agreements and MoUs on space, agriculture, education & knowledge, health, etc, will be signed, taking the relationship to a new, transformative level," according to National Security Adviser M K Narayanan.

He indicated that the joint exploration of space for peaceful purposes could be a key area of cooperation.

Narayanan, already grappling with recent crises between India and China resulting out of the Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang and Home Secretary G K Pillai's comments that India's Maoists 'may source' their small arms from China, was unwilling to talk about the overwhelming attraction between Beijing and Washington and its impact on Delhi.

But a highly placed Indian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "Everybody, including the US, has a sense of discomfort about China".

Instead, Narayanan focused on the details of the PM's trip : The PM, he said, would make two major addresses to varied US audiences, both on November 23, the first to a combined meeting of the Council for Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson Institute, and later that day to the US Chamber of Commerce.

Delhi was keen that the PM address a joint session of the US Congress, like he did the last time around in July 2005, when the Indo-US nuclear deal first took formal shape under the George W Bush administration, so as to reinforce the message of democracy between the world's largest and oldest democratic powers. But it seems the Congress is in recess.

On November 25, the PM will meet the Indian community, after which he flies out to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, to attend the Commonwealth heads of government meeting from November 27-29.

It seems as if the one big idea is so far eluding India and the US, on the lines of the Indo-US nuclear deal with the Bush administration, although Narayanan scoffed at the thought.

"Rest assured," Narayanan said, "with the Obama administration, it is much more than one issue such as the nuclear deal under consideration, it is a much more wide-ranging conversation."

But analysts are already talking about the dangers of getting mired in the detail of minor agreements and losing sight of the grand, strategic idea.

In a paper written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, well-known India-watcher Ashley Tellis argued that the US needed to reassure India of its continued support on its key concerns, including China on the one hand and Pakistan on the other.

Tellis noted three key Indian concerns: Pakistan's use of US counter-terrorism aid to combat its own terrorists and ignore those that threaten India, the hope that Obama would continue the Bush administration's hands-off approach on Kashmir, and the need to maintain a regional balance of power between India and China.

"A private, high-level dialogue between India and the US would assure New Delhi that Washington values a balanced regional approach -- and that US financial dependence on China will not unduly limit the necessity for preserving the appropriate strategic balance in Asia," Tellis said.

On Pakistan, Narayanan, who returned from a preparatory meeting to the US last week where he met several top officials, including his counterpart General James Jones, admitted that the US was 'concerned' about the situation in that country. "The Americans have invested heavily in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but everyone I met took care to tell me that this is not at the expense of India," Narayanan said.

It is still unclear whether the PM will meet Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the margins of the Commonwealth meeting, either for comprehensive talks like at Sharm-el Sheikh or merely a photo-op. The first anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks will take place exactly at the same time.

Jyoti Malhotra In New Delhi
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