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India Sees Growing Partnership with US Ahead of PM's State Visit

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh interacts with Indian army soldiers in remote Ladakh district in northwest Kashmir
India says its relationship with the United States is in the midst of a major transformation - one in which New Delhi emerges as a genuine partner of the world's only superpower. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares for the start of his state visit to Washington Monday.

This will be the first state visit by an Indian prime minister to Washington in five years - and the White House it appears, is pulling out all the stops.

President Bush is expected to host a state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to hold a luncheon. Mr. Singh is also due to address a joint session of Congress, and to hold meetings with, among others, the vice-president, and the secretaries of the treasury and defense.

New Delhi believes these honors are a sign of India's emergence as a power to be reckoned with.

"If there is a greater focus today on India in the U.S., it is not because India is weak, but it is because India is strong," Foreign Secretary Shyam Sarin said. "We are being recognized as a country which has [an] array of capabilities, and has the potential to emerge as a very, very important power in the future."

India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of more than 100 mostly Third World nations formed during the Cold War to avoid domination by either the United States or the Soviet Union.

While maintaining its independence, India developed close ties with the Soviet Union, which often put it on a collision course with the United States.

That slowly shifted after the Cold War ended. Now, U.S. officials seem as excited as India about the changing partnership. In recent press statements, Secretary of State Rice has described the U.S.-India relationship as "reaching new heights," while another official has called this a "watershed year" in relations between the two nations.

On the agenda for talks in Washington is a series of issues including building stronger trade and defense ties, combating terrorism, India's push for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and the sharing of nuclear energy technology.

Officials in New Delhi say the broad-ranging agenda represents years of discussions between the two countries, but it is in that last area where India hopes to achieve real change.

India imports more than 70 percent of the crude oil it consumes to support a booming economy that grew by seven percent last year alone. India has also been a nuclear power since 1974, and would like to expand its potential to use peaceful nuclear energy, by sharing technology with the United States

But India has refused to sign the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it says gives too much power to the United States and other early nuclear powers. That refusal makes it illegal for the United States to share nuclear energy technology with India.

Raja Mohan of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi says that is a restriction India wants to get past.

"The current non-proliferation laws prevent even elementary nuclear commerce between the two sides," said Raja Mohan. "So India would look to see President Bush taking some steps to remove those restrictions."

But India is not just looking for favors. Analysts say Washington recognizes a strong India could serve its interests in Asia - especially if Washington decides in the future that it needs to counter the growing political and economic influence of China.

Ashley Tellis of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says such a goal - if Washington seizes on it - would require a stronger India.

"Right now the objective is to build India up as a strong, independent center of power, because the calculation is that if you have a cluster of strong powers in Asia, that by itself would act as a restraint on any potential Chinese misbehavior down the line," said Ashley Tellis.

Analysts say part of the credit for the new U.S.-India relationship goes to recent strides India has made towards peace with its nuclear rival and neighbor, Pakistan - with which it has fought three wars. Now, the two nations can be treated by Washington more on their individual merits, and less as an interlinked foreign policy headache.

As Mr. Singh goes to Washington, the situation seems clear: both India and the United States now see what had been a wary relationship, which has grown into a good friendship, as a key alliance whose time has come.