Indian PM Manmohan Singh has started a four-day visit to the US, where he is to hold talks with President Barack Obama. He is also set to meet Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif amid rising tensions between the Asian neighbors.
The leaders of the world's two largest democracies are set to meet on Friday, September 27, at the White House, in what is widely believed to be Singh's last visit to the US as prime minister. The 80-year-old politician, who has been struggling with India's slowing economic growth, a rapid depreciation of the rupee and corruption scams, has already indicated that he would not like to continue as PM after next year's elections. The summit in Washington will be the third meeting between the two leaders in four years.
The talks with President Obama are likely to focus on an array of issues, including security, immigration reform, the obstacles hampering the implementation of a landmark civilian nuclear deal and the promotion of bilateral trade.
"Despite setbacks related to the 2008 nuclear agreement - which was designed to facilitate nuclear cooperation between the United States and India - New Delhi's relations with Washington remain on an upward trajectory. Trade and services especially tie the two countries together," says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the US-based Atlantic Council.
Indian PM Singh (l) and US President Obama (r) are expected to discuss economic and security-related issues
Indo-US trade relations have strengthened in recent years, increasing from 9 billion USD in 1995 to 86 billion USD in 2011, according to US government data. There are, however, considerable economic challenges.
"Both countries believe the other tends to be too protectionist. Additionally, the Indians believe that US legislation has penalized Indians, particularly by placing obstacles in the way of American companies using Indian call centers, and by subjecting US based Indians to high visa-related fees," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told DW.
A new nuclear trade deal?
During the meeting, the two sides are expected to reassure one another that the relationship remains significant. "Both leaders are likely to reiterate the common values of the two countries and the US will underscore India's growing regional and global role," Nawaz pointed out. However, analysts remain skeptical the meeting will result in any breakthrough: "This is essentially a farewell call by Prime Minister Singh," the expert said.
This view is shared by Kugelman: "There will likely be some economic deals and arms sales, but these are relatively common and thus not a sufficient prize." But the analyst pointed out that India and the US might also conclude a new, albeit modest deal on nuclear trade. New Delhi recently announced it would relax its stringent laws on nuclear liability, which have made US businesses reluctant to invest in India's nuclear sector.
"With the laws relaxed, we can expect an announcement of an accord between the American Westinghouse Electric Company and India's state-owned nuclear corporation, NPCIL," Kugelman said.
Concerns over Afghanistan
Experts also believe the security situation in Afghanistan and its implications on South Asia will figure prominently in the talks. India is uncomfortable about Washington's efforts to talk with the Afghan Taliban, and will want assurance from the Obama administration that the talks will be led by the Afghan government, and not by the Taliban and Washington.
New Delhi is concerned that NATO's withdrawal from Afghanistan next year could lead militants in the region to turn their attention to India. Kugelman therefore believes the Singh administration will want assurances from the White House that the US is intent on signing a security agreement with Kabul that enables Washington to leave a residual force in Afghanistan. "No one is more terrified by the idea of a 'zero option' in Afghanistan than is New Delhi," Kugelman said.
New Delhi will be hosting a couple of meetings about the future of Afghanistan in the coming months. Nawaz explains that India wants to take part in the dialogue on the security situation in the the war-torn country, despite Pakistan's concerns about India's growing clout in the region.
Singh to meet Sharif at UN
This adds to the importance of Singh's US trip. After the talks with Obama in Washington, Singh is scheduled to meet on Sunday, September 29, with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, amid rising tensions over a series of fatal attacks along the border in Kashmir.
The leaders of the nuclear-armed neighboring countries are expected to discuss the recent violence on the line of control the disputed region, which is not only divided by the two countries but also claimed by both in its entirety. Terrorism-related issues as well as bilateral trade are also expected to be on the agenda.
Analysts add, however, that the talks are unlikely to yield any major results. "They will probably talk about the need to keep talking. That's about it," Kugelman said.
However, he explains the meeting has symbolic value, as it shows that despite a dip in bilateral ties in recent months, the two South Asian nations have invested enough in their relationship that they are willing to move beyond the tensions and engage in high-level diplomatic channels.