Chances are that it will be an expensive dinner —foreign policy-wise, that is. When US President Barack Obama hosts Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a “state dinner" next week, matters may end up being restricted to a culinary agenda.

They should not. After the highs of the George Bush Jr years, relations between the two countries have cooled almost to freezing point. Obama’s recent visit to Beijing and his joint statement with President Hu Jintao are a case in point. Viewed in isolation, the statement does not amount to much: China and the US merely pledged support for improving relations between India and Pakistan. Simple. When seen as part of a train of developments, it is a shocker. The US is ceding political and diplomatic space to a known antagonist of India, one that is allied with Pakistan. How can China promote peace? It sees India as a future rival that needs to be curbed now. It also knows that if Pakistan implodes, India will simply become too powerful to control.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

Its efforts will be geared to prevent this.

For the US this is no more than throwing a few shekels at China. This has been done with knowing disregard of Indian sensibilities, but with total regard to US’ changed strategic priorities. India figures quite low in the new American order. Thus, the chances of an Indo-US partnership to further our interests are slim at the moment. The US under Obama has retreated to a position of defensive realism. In simpler terms, it wants to safeguard the real estate that it has and let China have a bit more of it to keep it happy.

The Prime Minister should be aware of this and should not get befuddled with the “honour" of a dinner hosted by Obama. The Americans know how to flatter us. We should know this, too.

We have to bide time. Meanwhile, we should not even think of ceding ground to the US. So far, India has not done that. We have not let it interfere in our dealings with Pakistan, save the pro forma talks with Islamabad. There will be renewed pressure on this front. We should resist that.

At the same time, when it comes to cooperating with the US in areas that are of interest to it, we should set a high price. It is important to do so, if we are to send Washington the right signals.

Let us hope that India will not be forced to stare at an empty plate in South Asia.

Gastronomic honour or realpolitik: What will the PM choose in Washington? Tell us at