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Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 8:59pm

U.S.-Pakistan Ties Overshadow Obama's Trip To India

President Obama is likely to get a friendly but subdued welcome when he begins his visit to India on Saturday.

Many Indians feel that the United States has neglected India, while cultivating strategic relations with its military rival, Pakistan.

That perception will be tough to overcome as Obama seeks India's help on a range of issues, from helping to balance the growing power of China to supporting the government of Afghanistan.

It could also hamper the president's efforts to open some key U.S. business opportunities in India.

Pakistan Aid Package Rankles Indians

The latest sore point for many Indians is a $2 billion military aid package for Pakistan that the Obama administration is requesting from Congress, announced at the end of October.

The administration wants Pakistan to use that military equipment to fight militants along its border with Afghanistan, but many Indians believe that any military aid to its longtime enemy is a threat.

M.J. Akbar, editor of India's Sunday Guardian newspaper, says Pakistan's military has always been focused on potential conflicts with India.

He notes that Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has been quoted as saying his defense posture is "India centric."

"And announcing that yet another [$2 billion] in arms are going to flow into the bottomless pocket of Gen. Kayani is not the happiest way of announcing your trip to India," Akbar says, referring to Pakistan's army chief.

Akbar says it was a singularly ill-timed diplomatic maneuver for the United States to announce the military aid to Pakistan so close to the president's visit to India.

U.S. Goals In India

India's conflict with Pakistan colors much of its relationship with the United States.

Obama would like to promote a huge sale of American jet fighters to India, but Indian defense officials and analysts worry that such weapons may come with strings attached.

"I think we have entered into a defense relationship of buying and selling, without coordinating our strategic postures," says Rajiv Shikri a retired Indian diplomat and strategic analyst in New Delhi.

Shikri notes that India has been buying military equipment from the U.S., but he says before the two sides can conclude any big deals, they must have a shared vision on defense strategy. That includes U.S. acceptance that India may need to use the equipment to defend itself against Pakistan, he says.

India's defense minister has declined to say where India will make its next big purchase of warplanes, but competitors for the sale include France and Russia.

Obama would also like to open India's retail markets to more investment from U.S. firms such as Wal-Mart, whose CEO visited India just a few weeks ago.

Shikri says the United States needs to understand India's political concerns about foreign investment, in an arena where huge numbers of jobs could be at stake.

"In India, in small towns, large towns and villages, you have so many mom-and-pop stores and family-run businesses, which would sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. Now if they're wiped out, it creates a problem," he says.

Shikri says it is a problem not unlike the one that Obama raised when he complained about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs a few weeks ago.

Agreement On China

India has its own wish list for the United States, including support for its bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and greater access to technologies from the United States that have dual civilian and military uses.

There is one area where the United States and India seem closer to agreement: concern over the rising political and economic power of China.

But Akbar says the United States should be more aware that India is really its natural ally in Asia.

"Americans must remember that India is the America of Asia. We are both modern nations. China may be an advanced nation, but it is not a modern nation because it has no democracy," Akbar says.

Indians are hoping that Obama's visit to their country will balance the president's trip to China last year and provide solid recognition of India's power in the region. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]