/ 17 June 2009

Business leaders out to put India on US map

United States and Indian business leaders meet on Wednesday in a bid to put a new focus on the South Asian power, whose warming US ties have ironically kept it off the new administration’s first priorities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to deliver an address charting out the administration’s path with India, where US-friendly Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has just won a convincing election mandate.

The meeting comes a week after senior US envoy William Burns travelled to New Delhi and said that President Barack Obama’s administration considered India “a major foreign policy priority”.

The US considers India to be a “crucial global partner in 21st century”, Burns said.

Clinton’s expected visit to New Delhi next month so soon after the election, the diplomat added, was crucial to “seize the opportunity before us to try to build on the foundation that already exists in our partnership”.

The US-India Business Council, which pushes for stronger commercial ties between the world’s two largest democracies, organised Wednesday’s meeting in Washington bringing together top business and political leaders.

Ron Somers, the president of the group, hoped the event would jumpstart a season of US interaction with India.

“It’s a newly strong relationship and like any relationship it requires tending and nurturing rather than thinking it can run on auto-pilot,” Somers told Agence France-Presse.

Obama moved early to build ties in Asia with longtime Asian ally Japan and an emerging China, whose relations with the US are often uneasy because of disputes over trade, human rights and other issues.

Obama has also put a focus on bringing stability to India’s neighbour and historic adversary Pakistan, which is engaged in a major campaign against Islamic militants, and has been engrossed in crises over North Korea and Iran.

“The Obama administration was clearly focusing itself on those priorities and India — as a friend, as the world’s largest free-market democracy — did not require that kind of attention,” Somers said.

But he sounded caution about a protectionist tone by some members of the US Congress, where India has sometimes become a synonym for outsourcing and the export of US jobs overseas.

“Painting India as the whipping boy for the economic challenges we are facing at home is really just misguided and could have unintended consequences,” Somers said.

He said that US businesses could create jobs domestically by seizing on India’s plans to modernize its military, which he estimated would entail $30-billion in defence contracts over the next five years.

India tilted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Russia has remained its top military supplier.

But US relations with India started to warm in the aftermath of feuding over New Delhi’s nuclear tests in 1998.

Former president George Bush, despite a sullied reputation in much of the world, was popular with Singh and many other politicians in India for ending the country’s pariah status on civilian nuclear markets.

Singh and Obama held a first mini-summit in April on the sidelines of a Group of 20 economic meeting in London, after which the US leader called the Indian prime minister “a wonderful man”. — AFP