WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he would visit India in November, seeking to keep the momentum in a partnership that both sides concede still needs to find its footing.
“I firmly believe the relationship between the United States and India will be a defining partnership for the 21st Century,” Obama told a reception at the end of the first official “strategic dialogue” between the two nations.
Obama’s announced trip -- which had been expected -- marked another symbolic step forward for U.S.-India ties, which are growing fast despite lingering doubts on both sides.
“This is an affair of the heart, not just of the head,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after concluding the dialogue meetings, which brought together high-level officials from both sides and focused on Afghanistan and security as well as fast-expanding economic links.
But Clinton earlier acknowledged unresolved problems as India frets over its place on Washington’s priority list and U.S. officials grow frustrated over sometimes slow moves to open the roaring Indian economy.
“We must not only build on areas of agreement, but frankly address doubts that remain on both sides,” Clinton said in her opening remarks.
“With this dialogue, and the level of confidence that we have established between ourselves, we will confront these concerns directly and candidly,” she said.
Clinton again publicly assured India that Washington supports its role in Afghanistan, where New Delhi fears its interests may suffer as the United States seeks to bolster its arch-rival Pakistan against Islamic militants and pursues the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
She pledged stronger cooperation on security and counter-terrorism -- a nod to Indian concern that it remains vulnerable to attack from Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups such as those behind the 2008 attack on Mumbai.
Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna also promised to do more to promote cooperation, noting that the two sides can work together on such areas as clean energy, agriculture, high technology and education.
“Our partnership has gone through various vicissitudes. But one thing stands out very clearly: that it is an enduring partnership,” he said.
U.S. officials said this week’s meeting was aimed primarily at launching the consultative process, and that no big announcements would likely be made before Obama’s trip to India in November.
India was a major focus for former President George W. Bush, but analysts say it appears to have slipped a bit on Washington’s radar as the Obama administration confronts crises ranging from the global financial meltdown to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Nevertheless two-way trade between the United States and India is surging, hitting more than $60 billion in 2009. American companies are eager to get better access to India’s retail, defense, education and power sectors -- although progress has been slow.
Both Clinton and Krishna repeated their intention to fully implement the landmark 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation accord, which ended India’s atomic isolation following its 1974 nuclear test and could mean billions of dollars in business for U.S. nuclear power companies.
Krishna, who earlier noted that India is moving to finalize a delayed nuclear liability bill that is a final piece of the deal, said the United States should respond by loosening controls on many high-tech exports to India.
“These controls are not only anomalous, but also a hindrance to furthering trade and investment in these particularly significant sectors of our economies,” he said.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham