From: Ram Narayanan
THE TIMES OF INDIA
Obama to attend Krishna reception to make a point
Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN, May 30, 2010, 12.10am IST
WASHINGTON: It's a question that is posed at every preview and review of current US-India relations in Washington DC: Is President Obama – and his administration – sidelining/downgrading/undermining ties with New Delhi?
No, not at all, not true, say US officials and their Indian counterparts. The perception is wrong, the premise is faulty, the analyses are flawed, they insist. But doubts and inquiries continue to float around the commentariat.
This week, in background conversations and on-record briefings on the eve of the first so-called "Strategic Dialogue" between the two sides from June 1-4, officials, particularly Americans, made strenuous efforts to counter the perception of the slideback, and set the stage for an autumn visit to India by President Obama that is all but penciled into the diplomatic calendar.
"The Obama administration attaches great importance to our relations with India, and as President Obama himself has said, this will be one of our signature partnerships in the 21st century," the US pointman for region Robert Blake said on Friday.
Not convinced? Well, in that case, Obama himself will make the point again.
Dispensing with the previous rite of very senior Indian cabinet ministers getting a Presidential drop-in during White House meetings or a walk-through the Oval office for brief chats with the President, Obama, in a rare gesture, will drive down to State Department in Foggy Bottom on Thursday to attend a reception Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be hosting for External Affairs Minister S M Krishna. He will also speak on the occasion.
"On Thursday, the President will attend and deliver remarks at the Secretary of State's reception in honour of the Indian delegation to the United States-India Strategic Dialogue, which will meet at the state department earlier that day," the White House said in its scheduling note for the media next week.
"The President's strong support of the Strategic Dialogue and of this inaugural meeting reflects his commitment to furthering a strategic partnership with India as we seek to address global challenges," it added in an unusual addendum.
Obama also telephoned Singh on Friday to discuss the upcoming dialogue, the White House said separately.
"The two leaders agreed that the Dialogue is an important milestone in the development of the US-India strategic partnership and looked forward to its results. President Obama and Prime Minister Singh also expressed their hope that the Dialogue will initiate a regular exchange of ideas and discussion between their governments and both pledged their support toward that end," a White House readout on the call said.
US officials are almost peeved at the nagging doubts many commentators seem to harbor about Obama's India outreach, and appalled that they don't recognize the importance he gives to New Delhi, including by way of hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the first state guest of his term in the White House.
Some Indian analysts see this as merely a sop that lacks policy substance, but White House officials say the President is deeply committed to the India relationship, and pundits should not read too much into his cool style compared to the bonhomie exhibited by his predecessor when it came to New Delhi.
One senior official spoke of the enormous admiration and respect Obama had for Prime Minister Singh, "not that our foreign policy is personality-based." There are a lot of countries President Obama has said he has to work on, but India is a country he wants to work on, he said.
Ahead of the strategic dialogue, US officials made a series of statements to reflect the President's view of India's growing regional and global relevance.
Among them was a suggestion that Pakistan and India can put the Kashmir issue on the backburner and first address confidence-building measures, including advancing trade and commerce, an approach favored by India.
Asked about the Kashmir issue at a briefing in the Foreign Press Center, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake said: "I think that's not going to be an issue that's going to be addressed right away. What's most important is first to get these talks going again and to focus on – once they've gotten beyond the immediate counterterrorism issues, to focus on some of the important opportunities like trade that exist between these two countries."
"And once they have developed a degree of confidence, they might then be able to take up some of these more sensitive territorial issues," he added.
Other US officials said there was no US pressure on India to talk to Pakistan; Prime Minister Singh was ahead of the curve when it came to dialogue with Pakistan. If anything, there was pressure on Pakistan to eliminate its home-grown terror groups in response to India's initiative, they said.
Many Indian analysts had second-guessed that Obama will change Washington's policy on Kashmir on the basis of his remarks before he assumed office and had projected "pressure" on India to make concessions. There were also apprehensions that Washington will ask New Delhi to downsize its initiatives in Afghanistan in deference to Pakistani sensitivities, which US officials now suggest are overblown.
Officials also once again endorsed New Delhi's role in Afghanistan and privately rubbished Pakistani allegations of a subversive Indian role in Afghanistan and its overheated rhetoric on water issues.
On Friday, William Burns, the third-ranking official in the State Department noted in a diplomatic blog that the "rise of India is important and positive for American interests," and said his wide-ranging conversation with Indian interlocutors "reminded me a lot of conversations with some of our closest allies."
"The planeload of "Blue Beret" Indian peacekeepers I saw waiting to embark at the airport when we arrived (in New Delhi recently) reminded me of India's growing military reach and its role as a provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond," he noted.
For the excellent item by Under Secretary Burns titled, "An Indispensable U.S. Partnership With the World's Largest Democracy", just posted on the State Department's Dipnote blog, please click: http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/indispensable_partnership_india .
It's clear that America is thinking ambitiously about the relationship with India in a way one hopes will refute the skeptics.
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