Manmohan’s US visit: small ticket items on high value agenda

New Delhi, Nov 20 ( Moving beyond the transformational nuclear deal, India and the US are set to unveil a new template for deepening strategic partnership on key global challenges, ranging from counter-terrorism to non-proliferation and climate change, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets US President Barack Obama in Washington Tuesday.

Manmohan Singh begins his four-day trip to Washington Sunday as the first state guest of the Obama White House.

The visit promises to be high on both style and substance.

Washington set the tone for the visit by describing India as a “rising global power”. Unlike the Bush presidency, when the nuclear deal was the centrepiece of the bilateral agenda, there is no one big idea this time. Instead, there will be four or five big ideas, key challenges of the 21st century, on the table, says US ambassador to India Timothy J. Roemer.

On what he expected to achieve in Washington, Manmohan Singh told the Washington Post: “Nuclear cooperation, cooperation in education, closer linkages between the university systems of our two countries, cooperation in health – working together to devise new vaccines.”

“It’s going to be low-key visit compared to the 2005 visit when the nuclear deal was struck. There is no one big ticket item this time round, but there will be a lot of small ticket but high value items,” Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary and a former envoy to the US, told IANS.

Manmohan Singh will enunciate his vision of the India-US relationship Monday in two major addresses – at the Council for Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson Institute and later that day at the high-powered US Chamber of Commerce.

But the show and rhetoric will not overshadow the substance when the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies sit down for talks Tuesday, Nov 24.

Manmohan Singh and Obama are expected to to firm up a truly global partnership on issues ranging from giving an institutional framework to their counter-terror cooperation and curbing greenhouse emissions to wrapping up the remaining steps of the nuclear deal and the multibillion dollar defence contracts.

Besides big-ticket strategic issues, the two sides are set to make “development” the centrepiece of their engagement, with the American promise of making India a world power acting as an inspiration. At least 10 pacts are expected in areas ranging from terrorism, education, trade and investment, agriculture, health and green technologies, reliable sources told IANS.

Loosening remaining restrictions on high-tech trade post nuclear deal and ironing out obstacles in the way of bilateral investment will be also be on the table. Bilateral trade has gone up nearly seven times from $5.6 billion in 1990 to about $43 billion in 2008.

A definite declaration on concluding a reprocessing pact, one of the key US commitments under the 123 India-US nuclear agreement, together with an announcement of the start of atomic trade is also on the cards.

Terror will be high on the agenda during the visit, which takes place on the eve of the first anniversary of the Mumbai attacks. The issue has shot into headlines once again with the FBI’s arrests of a US citizen and a Canadian of Pakistani origin in Chicago plotting terror attacks against India.

An all-encompassing counter-terror framework revolving around enhanced intelligence sharing and sharing of surveillance and interdiction technologies could well be the showpiece of the visit, said the sources.

The two leaders are also expected to take a harder look at the two countries that are giving them a headache, if not migraine, on a daily basis: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

With Pakistan not doing enough to prosecute the Mumbai attackers and address New Delhi’s concerns on cross-border terror, Manmohan Singh is likely to ask Obama to bring more pressure on Islamabad to act. Despite differences in approach on AfPak strategy, the two leaders are set to consult closely in restoring stability to the Taliban-wracked Afghanistan with India backing the continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan as a way to maintain civic peace.

A closer cooperation on AfPak issues, coupled with a joint statement on India’s larger role in regional and global affairs, may well be one of the highlights of the visit, said a highly-placed source. This could offset the impression in New Delhi that Washington was ready to give a monitoring role to Beijing on India-Pakistan ties.

“There is one big ticket that still remains, that is, the US declaring support for India in the Security Council,” Mansingh said. Let’s see whether that happens, he said.