Washington: US President Barack Obama’s drive to build relations with both India and Pakistan faces a delicate test later on Sunday as he meets with the leaders of the nuclear-armed rivals to discuss security issues.
Obama is expected to meet Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh of India and Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan within hours, on the eve of a 47-nation summit on improving nuclear security. But no meeting has been scheduled between Singh and Gilani. The two nations cautiously resumed talks in February which had been cut off after the deadly attacks on Mumbai in 2008.
Mutual concerns: A file photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama at the White House in November. Asad Zaidi/Bloomberg
Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said that the “pace, scope and character of relations” between India and Pakistan was up to the two countries. But he added: “The United States hopes that India and Pakistan can improve relations between two friends of the United States.”
Obama invited Singh in November for the first state dinner of his presidency, an honour meant to push forward a decade-old drive to transform the world’s two largest democracies into partners.
The Obama administration has at the same time welcomed Pakistani actions against Islamic extremists and tried to curb widespread anti-Americanism in the country by seeking cooperation on issues beyond Afghanistan.
At a first-of-a-kind strategic dialogue with the US last month, Pakistan presented one item on its wish-list: a US role in Kashmir. The US has publicly ruled out mediation over Kashmir, which India considers a domestic issue. But some supporters of India have worried the Obama administration may put subtle pressure on New Delhi.
Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said the US largely had different interests in India and Pakistan.
Since the late 1990s, “the US is much better able to insulate its policies towards India from those towards Pakistan,” she said. “But it’s not 100%. In any two countries that have that pronounced a rivalry, there’s going to be some concern in each country based on how you deal with the other,” she said.
India and Pakistan are both seen as crucial to the theme of Obama’s summit—preventing an attack from loose nuclear materials. The nations gate-crashed the elite club of nuclear powers in 1998. While the US has since praised India’s nuclear security and pursued cooperation, it has feared proliferation from Pakistan.
“Pakistan has been a source of concern in the past,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. “But if we’re going to strengthen the nonproliferation regime going forward, we want to see Pakistan invested in this process.”