WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh renewed their mutual pledge Friday to deepen the relationship between the U.S. and India, declaring a shared interest in reducing tensions in South Asia as the U.S. lightens its footprint in war-torn Afghanistan.
Calling each other indispensable partners, Obama and Singh said great strides had been made on economic cooperation and a civilian nuclear agreement. Left unsaid were prevalent concerns in both nations that progress on those areas has come too slowly as the U.S.-India relationship has stagnated in recent years.
"There is a natural convergence between the United States and India," Obama said. But while the two nations both say they have much to gain from closer economic ties, security challenges in South Asia have created a sense of unease in the region that has overshadowed peaceful pursuits.
New Delhi is concerned the Taliban may fill the power vacuum left behind as the U.S. withdraws most of its combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Chief among India's concerns is the role that its neighboring rival, Pakistan, will play in influencing Afghanistan's future.
"We both have a shared interest in making sure that Afghanistan continues on its path to a peaceful democratic country," Obama said. Singh said he told the president of the difficulties he faces, given that the "epicenter of terrors still remains focused in Pakistan." Obama praised his Indian counterpart for his "consistent interest in improving cooperation" between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed nations and bitter foes.
Singh and the Pakistan prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, have planned a highly anticipated sit-down while both are in the U.S., and Obama plans to meet with Sharif next month. Singh said he was looking forward to his meeting with Sharif but added a note of caution.
"The expectations have to be toned down given the terror arm which is still active in our subcontinent," Singh said. On the economic front, Obama and Singh held up clean energy, military trade and common efforts to reduce endemic poverty in India as continued opportunities for the world's two largest democracies to work in tandem.
"In all these areas, India needs the United States to be standing by our side," Singh said. But a landmark agreement on civil nuclear technology forged between Singh and former President George W. Bush has failed to yield the immediate economic benefits some had hoped. There's been disappointment that military trade and economic reforms haven't progressed quickly enough either.
Casting a positive light on possibilities for the future, Obama said that in the last few days, the first commercial agreement has been reached between a U.S. company and India on civilian nuclear power. His comments appeared to allude to a pact with Westinghouse Electric Co. that could lead to the development of a nuclear power plant using the American company's technology.
Outside the White House, a group of about 100 Sikhs protested Singh's visit, waving a banner reading "President Obama!! Be the voice of the Sikh genocide." The protesters say Singh — a Sikh himself — must be brought to justice for failing to adequately prosecute those responsible for killing them. Thousands were killed in India's anti-Sikh riots in 1984.
A frequent exchange of official visits has characterized the close relationship between the two countries. Singh visited Washington in 2009, and Obama traveled to India a year later. Vice President Joe Biden, who was to join the meeting later Friday, recently spent four days in India.
And at the White House Friday, first lady Michele Obama hosted the prime minister's wife, Gursharan Kaur, for tea. "There's a bipartisan sense in Washington that India, being a large, growing Asian democracy, occupies potentially a very important role — not least because it stands next to China," said Daniel Markey, a former State Department official and South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It could be an Asia giant to counter some of China's influence in the world."
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
Follow Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP