India, US seek to bridge prickly gaps in ties

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India and the United States this week hold their first strategic dialogue, testing a pledge from the Obama administration that it really does consider New Delhi a global partner.

New Delhi is keen for the June 2-3 talks to go beyond mere symbolism and tackle tricky issues such as the tighter US relationship with Islamabad, due to strategic concerns over the conflict in Afghanistan and the potential for instability in Pakistan.

Washington, in turn, will look for assurances that India is on track to open its vast market in power plants to US firms, narrowing differences over trade and climate change, as well as getting New Delhi's cooperation to sanction Iran over its nuclear program.

"The Indian complaint is that the Obama administration has done all the right things at the level of symbols, but at the level of substance the proof is still wanting," said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

India is widely seen as a key geopolitical player for stability in South Asia, as well as playing a bigger role on global issues such as climate change and trade.

President Barack Obama has called India an indispensable partner. But the ties have lacked a central theme, such as the civilian nuclear pact that defined the relationship during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The talks led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna will focus on five areas strategic cooperation, energy, climate change, education/ development, trade and agriculture and also include deeper cooperation on security and intelligence.

"There is a commitment there, but we have yet to see the kind of dedicated focus and the motivation within the bureaucracy to really get down to the nuts and bolts of fleshing out the strategic dialogue," said Lisa Curtis, a South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Nettlesome issues

President Bill Clinton started US efforts to build ties with modern India when the Cold War ended nearly two decades ago and India began to liberalize its economy in the 1990s.

His successor George Bush elevated relations with a 2008 civilian nuclear deal that ended an embargo imposed in 1974 after New Delhi tested a nuclear bomb. Bilateral trade shot up from $5.6 billion in 1990 to $43 billion in 2008.

But New Delhi is concerned about the US strategy for Afghanistan, in which it has allied with Pakistan, seeing it as giving Islamabad more influence in Afghanistan at the expense of India.

"A fundamental disconnect has emerged between U.S. and Indian interests in Af-Pak," said Harsh Pant of King's College, London.

Among other nettlesome issues, Washington will be keen to get India to back its move on sanctions against Iran, something that New Delhi has so far refused to endorse.

The United States has clashed with Brazil and Turkey, which oppose sanctions against Tehran. As a major G20 member India's view would be crucial for Washington.

The dialogue will also focus on India expediting a bill giving accident liability protection to American firms, opening up retail trade, and cooperating on climate change positions.

"The idea is to put the relationship on a new comfort level," said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of the Hindu newspaper in India. "They will work on a set of short-term deliverables ahead of Obama's visit (to India in November)."

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