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US sees 'tremendous upside' in ties with India

Indira Kannan  |  New York 

As US President Barack Obama’s administration takes stock of its foreign policy priorities at the mid-point of its first term, it sees India as a bright spot on the map.

The spokesman of the US National Security Council, Michael Hammer, said in New York on Wednesday that 2011 would see increasing cooperation between the two countries on various fronts, and pointed to the recent decision taken by India with regard to Iran and the financing of trade with the West Asian nation.

“I see a tremendous upside as we head to 2011 in terms of the India-US relationship,” said Hammer.

Relations with India’s neighbour to the west might prove more challenging. Referring to the situation in Pakistan, especially following the assassination of Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, Hammer said, “Pakistan is part of what we see as the eventual solution to some of the issues that we face in terms of the terrorist and extremist threat that originates from that area of the world.”

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is scheduled to visit Washington this week to attend a memorial service for US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. While Zardari is expected to meet senior US officials, it’s not yet known if he will meet Obama while in Washington.

But the Obama administration is not in any hurry to find a permanent replacement for Holbrooke; it’s not even clear they will want one. According to Hammer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama “will look to see what the right way forward is with respect to the special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Frank Ruggiero took over as the acting envoy to Af-Pak after Holbrooke’s death last month and Hammer said the administration expects the official to “continue to do that work until a way forward is figured out”.

Following Holbrooke’s death, some US commentators had again called for expanding the portfolio of the Af-Pak special envoy to include India. Columnist Joe Klein wrote in Time magazine: “If the real US national-security interest in Afghanistan is the stability of Pakistan, that is a job for a master diplomat like Holbrooke — and the true portfolio is the one that Obama mentioned to me in 2008: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.”

Fierce opposition by India had ensured its exclusion from Holbrooke’s assignment in the early days of the Obama administration. Two years into his term, Hammer said, “The President recognises that India is an important partner and certainly critical in that region”. He added, “In order to ensure stability in South Asia, we want to encourage dialogue between India and Pakistan, because the more trust and confidence that can be built between those two nations, the more able everyone is to focus on the challenges of extremism and terrorism that are a threat to us all.”

And, as Obama gets ready to welcome China’s President Hu Jintao to Washington next week, those who like to keep score between India and China may find it sobering to learn that the US President, according to Hammer, counts India “among the emerging powers around the globe that are increasingly important,” and views China as a “great power” and one with which he wants to ensure the US has “the right type of relationship”.

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First Published: Fri, January 14 2011. 00:48 IST