US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for deeper regional security cooperation and trade ties in talks with Indian leaders Tuesday, held in the shadow of triple bomb blasts in Mumbai.
India’s concerns over the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan and New Delhi’s renewed peace talks with arch-rival Pakistan are expected to figure in the “strategic dialogue” underway in the Indian capital.
Clinton held talks with India’s national security adviser and foreign minister and will later meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, before flying Wednesday to the southern city of Chennai.
She said there were three areas where the countries could deepen what Washington considers “a defining partnership of the 21st century”, namely trade and investment, security cooperation and civil nuclear technology.
Progress has been made, Clinton acknowledged in a speech alongside Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, “but there is still a great deal more room for our countries to make progress together.”
Her visit follows the blasts in Mumbai last week that killed 19 people and injured more than 130.
No one has claimed responsibility, but relations between India and Pakistan have been undermined in the past by militant strikes that New Delhi blames on Pakistan-based groups.
“We believe there’s been some good progress between India and Pakistan in the last few months”, a senior US administration official said, adding that Clinton was keen to help sustain that momentum.
India suspended its peace dialogue with Pakistan after 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and talks between the nuclear-armed neighbours only resumed earlier this year.
Washington’s own relations with Pakistan — a crucial counter-terrorism ally — have deteriorated since US commandos shot and killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2 in a Pakistani garrison town, sowing distrust on both sides.
Earlier this month Washington suspended almost a third of the $2.7 billion in security assistance it provides each year to Islamabad.
Clinton said that there was room for widening US-India cooperation on maritime security and counter-terrorism, as well as military-to-military contacts.
India is wary of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, fearing that Islamist elements within Pakistan could take advantage of a power vacuum in the war-torn country.
Clinton’s two-day trip follows President Barack Obama’s visit in November — a courtship of India that reflects the rapid growth in the country’s economy and a shift in power to emerging nations as a result of the global financial crisis.
While economic ties have improved significantly in recent years, they are still seen as falling short of their potential.
A landmark deal between the two countries in 2008 that allowed India to buy nuclear reactors and fuel was meant to lead to major contracts for US firms, but those hopes have been undermined by legal obstacles and uncertainty.
Clinton stated in her speech that “we need to resolve those issues that still remain so we can reap the rewards of a robust energy partnership.”
French and Russian state-run firms have signed deals to sell nuclear reactors to India, but privately-run US firms have so far failed to make headway, largely because of regulatory concerns.
The United States was also deeply disappointed in April when its bidders were dropped from the $12 billion competition to provide India with 126 combat aircraft, one of the largest military contracts of recent years.
In other areas, commerce has been booming, however, with bilateral trade up by 30 percent to nearly $50 billion in 2010.
On the sidelines of Clinton’s visit, US government officials and corporate leaders met at the US-India Business Council for a discussion on building infrastructure in India — an vital area of potential for foreign firms.
The US is “committed to helping transform India’s infrastructure from an obstacle to sustainable growth to an engine of it,” said Elizabeth Littlefield, the chief of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US agency.
Clinton, who was in Athens on Sunday to offer support for the Greek government as it tries to tackle its perilous and worsening debt crisis, is scheduled to head on to China, Hong Kong and Indonesia.