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Aligning interests strengthen U.S.-Indian ties

Pick up the phone for help rebooting your home computer, and you're likely to be patched in to a software whiz kid somewhere in New Delhi.

Fill up your tank at the gas pump and you're competing for precious energy supplies with a truck driver in Calcutta.

Apply for a data processing job at a Fortune 500 company, and you may find that a grad student in Bangalore is handling the work instead.

Increasingly, U.S. ties to India touch the hip pocket.

And global change is also wedding American strategic interests to those of India, whether the goal is to combat global terrorism, counter the spread of avian flu, promote the advancement of democracy or stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

With 1.1-billion people, a booming economy and the largest democratic government in the world, India is transforming itself from global poverty poster child into a regional superpower with hopes of one day becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Little wonder, then, that the United States is remaking its relationship with the South Asian giant, as will be clear when President Bush takes his first trip there this week.

Ripe with symbolism, the visit will cast India as a partner in U.S. efforts to address global concerns. It will also provide clues as to where India fits into the geostrategic jigsaw puzzle of U.S. relations with countries as varied as China, Iran and Pakistan.

"We have an ambitious agenda with India," Bush said in a recent speech to the Asia Society. "It builds on a relationship that has never been better."

On ice throughout five decades of the Cold War, U.S.-India relations turned a corner six years agowhen Bill Clinton became the first sitting American president to visit India since Jimmy Carter in 1978. Only two other sitting presidents have ever gone: Dwight Eisenhower, in 1959, and Richard Nixon a decade later.

The people of India treated Clinton's five-day visit as something of a national coming-out party, capped by his speech before the Indian parliament, whose cheering members surged forward to shake his hand after he pledged that "America very much wants you to succeed."

Bush's trip, by contrast, will be a swing through India and Pakistan that will not include a speech to parliament, a body deeply divided over the meaning of strengthened ties between New Delhi and Washington.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken the biggest gamble of his political career. By tilting toward the United States, Singh risks his country's long history with nearby Iran and its far more precarious relationship with China. In the process, Singh has drawn fire from the liberal wing of Indian politics, where Bush's visit is seen as a sign of resignation, not hope.

As India and the United States have deepened their partnership, strains have emerged in both countries.

The United States is India's largest trading partner, with two-way commerce nearing $27-billion last year. It is also India's largest foreign investor, pouring in $3.8-billion in 2004. Those links helped fuel economic growth of nearly 7 percent last year in India, where jobs and wages are among the keys to combating endemic poverty - and where this growth is feeding mounting demand for imported crude oil.

At the same time, the United States has pressed painful economic reforms on India. During his visit, Bush will ask Singh to shake up his country's retail sector, to give U.S. companies greater access to India's 300-million middle-class consumers, and to scrap long-standing employment policies that make it hard for companies to hire and fire workers.

In this country, Bush has come under political pressure to address a burgeoning outflow of U.S. jobs to countries overseas, where wages and worker protections are frequently a fraction of what employers face in this country. U.S. companies employ Indian workers to write software, provide technical assistance via telephone call centers, manage bank accounts, manufacture sportswear and perform other tasks that were once the domain of American workers.

Such U.S. outsourcing is an important source of income for India as it competes with China, the economic behemoth of Asia.

Bush is using India to hedge larger U.S. bets against China, as well, inking a 10-year defense accord with India that, while far short of establishing a formal alliance, calls for joint exercises between U.S. and Indian forces. The arrangement provides potential leverage to India, which shares a 1,000-mile border with China but also wants to court American military cooperation.

Bob Deans' e-mail address is bdeanscoxnews.com

Cox Newspapers

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