(CNSNews.com) - Following a surprise stop in Afghanistan, President Bush was due in India later Wednesday, a visit that is focusing attention on a relationship that is strengthening considerably despite numerous hurdles.
One scholar called the U.S.-India relationship "one of the most significant developments of the early part of the 21st century."
Although difficulties in reaching an agreement on a landmark nuclear energy cooperation deal are making headlines in both countries, administration officials and experts say both the visit and the developing Indo-U.S. partnership should be seen in far broader terms than the nuclear issue alone.
"This is a very broad relationship that is deepening," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is accompanying the president, told reporters on Air Force One.
"There's a lot that is going to be cemented here."
Michael Green, a former national security director for Asian affairs, said earlier the relationship was based on the administration's strategic realization "that India's going to have an impact on a lot of things that matter to us, whether we like it or not."
Speaking at a function organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), he listed some of these as "demand for energy, the growth of Indian markets, a middle class that's as large as the U.S. population."
India was going to be a player in regional and global affairs, Green said, and it made sense for the two major democracies to work together.
At the same function, CSIS international security analyst Kurt Campbell predicted that looking back in 10-15 years time, the development of closer ties between India and the U.S. would be seen as "one of the most important dimensions" of the Bush administration and the tail end of the Clinton administration.
A leader in the developing world which tilted towards Moscow during the Cold War, India has since the collapse of the Soviet Union moved closer to the U.S. and is viewed increasingly favorably in the West.
It has also become one of America's most quickly expanding major export markets.
A country whose population grows by an estimated 29 people a minute (some 15 million a year) and is due to overtake China's within 30 years, India also boasts the world's second-fastest growing economy.
It is the need to find a way to fuel that galloping economy that is driving Washington's offer to end decades of restrictions and cooperate with India's nuclear energy sector, as part of a strategic partnership initiative.
The nuclear deal, first offered by Bush during a visit by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last July, has run up against opposition from lawmakers in both countries and differences may not be settled in time to finalize the agreement during this week's visit (see earlier story).
The agenda will in any case be a full one, and include terrorism, trade, security in the Indian Ocean and broader Asian region, and how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Unlike President Clinton's five-day visit in 2000, Bush has not included sightseeing in his schedule for India, although he is due to attend a cricket match during a short visit to Pakistan at the weekend.
Instead, he will hold talks with Singh, attend a state dinner hosted by Indian President Abdul Kalam and meet with business leaders at a U.S.-India CEO Forum. He will also discuss religious freedom with religious leaders, meet opposition politicians, and during a brief visit to Hyderabad, interact with young entrepreneurs, farmers and agricultural scientists.
In Pakistan, Bush will hold talks with President Pervez Musharraf, take part in a meeting on reconstruction efforts following last October's costly earthquake, attend a state dinner, and hold talks with public and private sector representatives.
Two independent relationships
India is a majority Hindu nation with a large Muslim minority, while Pakistan is the world's second most populous Islamic country. The nuclear-armed neighbors are bitter rivals, having fought three wars since independence almost 60 years ago, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
For many in South Asia, the U.S. has long been seen to have "hyphenated" relations with India and Pakistan.
Because of the historic enmity, the issue is a sensitive one.
"Pakistan and India each tends to view coopera\-tion between the other country and the U.S. as inimical to its own interests," said Heritage Foundation scholar Dana Dillon, adding that Bush would need to "deftly" balance the interests of the two, while also advancing American interests.
Some analysts say India would have been far happier had Bush chosen to visit India and perhaps make other stops in Asia, but not include Pakistan on this visit.
Indians frequently call into question Pakistan's reliability as an ally and suitability as a beneficiary of U.S. arms sales, pointing to issues like Musharraf's failure to restore democracy, sympathy within the armed forces for terrorists fighting to end Indian rule in divided Kashmir, and a poor record on nuclear non-proliferation.
Comparing his country to Pakistan, Indian international relations analyst Subhash Kapila argued that, apart from Musharraf and those around him, Pakistan is "overwhelmingly anti-American. It is visible on the streets of Pakistan today."
"In India, while the strategic community strongly questions many United States policies - especially where they ignore India's strategic sensitivities - they cannot be said to be anti-American."
However, U.S. security officials say Pakistan's cooperation is essential in the campaign against al-Qaeda, a position shared by the authors of the 9/11 Commission report, who said "it is hard to overstate the importance of Pakistan in the struggle against Islamist terrorism."
The report also said that although Musharraf - who seized power in a 1999 coup - had made little progress in restoring democracy at a national level, "Musharraf's government represents the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Rice and other U.S. officials have been stressing that the relationships with India and with Pakistan have under the Bush administration been "dehyphenated," that the U.S. sees the importance of advancing both relationships independently of each other.
"There isn't a U.S. policy towards India/Pakistan," said Green. "There's increasingly a policy towards each that stands on its own merits, and I think that's going to be a big theme on this trip."
In the view of Ted Galen Carpenter, the Cato Institute's vice president for foreign policy and defense studies, the U.S. needs Pakistan in the short term to help combat terrorism.
"Over the longer term, however, America's top strategic priority in that part of the world should be to have close ties with India."
See earlier story:
Indian PM Takes Flak Over Nuclear Deal Ahead of Bush Visit (Feb. 28, 2006)
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.