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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Key talks to spur India-US ties
By Seema Sirohi in New York

Congress Party leader Manmohan Singh
Mr Singh will discuss regional issues with President Bush
President George Bush may be neck deep in a tough election campaign but he still found time to have breakfast with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reaffirm his commitment to a strong relationship with India.

The two leaders are expected to include in their talks the many peace initiatives currently being discussed by India and its neighbour, Pakistan.

This is the first major diplomatic engagement by the new Indian prime minister.

He will also meet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on 24 September on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

It will be the first meeting between the two leaders since national elections in India brought a new coalition to power, raising some concern in Washington about the direction India's foreign policy might take.

There were anxious moments when US officials thought the new government was delaying progress on the bilateral agenda but after a series of meetings at different levels, those doubts have largely been put to rest.

The phrasing by Mr Powell is significant because it is similar to India's position on Kashmir - that Kashmir is one of the issues that must be resolved along with several others

"We are as eager - if not more so - to consolidate and strengthen relations and to keep the momentum going," a senior Indian diplomat, who asked not be named, said.

President Bush and Mr Singh can thrash things out, say officials on both sides, and get to know each other.

"The main thing is to establish rapport at the top level. President Bush is very much a one-on-one man. He takes greater comfort when he can see someone in person," one official said.

Main pivot

The two leaders will take stock of Indo-US relations, including trade ties, as well as the US-led war on terrorism.

Given Mr Singh's background as the initiator of India's economic reforms, the Indian side is expected to seek more US investment in India.

US Ambassador to India David Mulford has stressed the need for banking reforms in India to make it easier for US companies to invest there.

George W Bush
Bush - 'one-on-one man'
But the main pivot of Indo-US relations is the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership or the NSSP, which envisages co-operation in four areas hitherto off-limits - civilian nuclear, space, high-tech trade and missile defence.

Over the past two months, officials have been busy working on details of an agreement to iron out differences so that the NSSP can move forward.

After some initial difficulties, the two sides are believed to be closer to completing the first phase of the agreement.

The US has also kept a keen eye on peace developments in South Asia and the recent meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri.

US officials say that they don't want to respond with "moment-by-moment analysis" because the temperature swings back and forth.

But they are fully behind the effort to make "further progress in the comprehensive engagement" between the two countries.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell talked to both foreign ministers before they met in Delhi recently to offer support and encouragement.

Kashmir 'options'

He later commented: "Both ministers recognise that Kashmir is an issue among many issues that have to be dealt with between the two nations."

Kashmir is a very difficult issue. It will take time to resolve. Both parties know that it has to be dealt with and it is part of their agenda
US Secretary of State Colin Powell

"Kashmir is a very difficult issue. It will take time to resolve. Both parties know that it has to be dealt with and it is part of their agenda," Mr Powell said in answer to a question about the dispute dominating the talks a fortnight ago.

The phrasing by Mr Powell is significant because it is similar to India's position on Kashmir - that Kashmir is one of the issues that must be resolved along with several others.

President Musharraf, on the other hand, likes to stress the primacy of the Kashmir dispute over other problems facing the two countries.

He told army officers recently that Pakistan "will not give up Kashmir, we have fought wars over it. Pakistan will have to ensure the interest of the Kashmiris".

"I will meet Manmohan Singh and tell him in unequivocal terms about our stand on the issue."

Analysts say he was speaking to a domestic audience.

The fact that his remarks did not raise much heat in Delhi is an indication of the progress in the dialogue the two neighbours have been conducting.

At least three secret meetings have been held between JN Dixit, India's national security adviser, and Tariq Aziz, his counterpart across the border, to prepare for the Musharraf-Singh encounter in New York.

Former US president Bill Clinton (right) meets former Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee in India in 2000
The India-US relationship strengthened in recent years

Reports say that the two are working on various "options" to resolve the Kashmir issue.

The Indian prime minister may also raise the issue of continuing cross-border insurgency in Kashmir with President Bush.

"We have told them that if it is global war on terrorism, you can't have different definitions - one for al-Qaeda and one for Kashmiri militants operating from Pakistan," an Indian diplomat complained.

He was referring to US officials' preference for the word "terrorism" for al-Qaeda operatives while using the word "infiltrators" for terrorists in Kashmir.

Indian officials insist that many terrorist training camps in Pakistan are still operating as networks that finance various groups.

Despite Indian efforts to highlight the contradictions in US policy, it is unlikely that Mr Bush - who meets President Musharraf on Wednesday - will say anything critical of Pakistan in public.

US officials say that President Musharraf is between a rock and a hard place in terms of trying to curb terrorism without losing control of various constituencies, an explanation that finds little sympathy in India.

But neither India nor the US wants to focus excessively on the negative in the first meeting between the two countries' leaders.




SEE ALSO:
US keen to uphold India ties
18 May 04  |  South Asia
US Senate launches India caucus
30 Apr 04  |  Business
India-US deal to boycott court
26 Dec 02  |  South Asia
India and US in terror talks
11 Jul 02  |  South Asia
Timeline: Steps to peace in South Asia
06 Sep 04  |  South Asia
Bush names Pakistan 'major ally'
17 Jun 04  |  South Asia


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