WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to India offers a unique opportunity to cement a global partnership with a rapidly emerging power. Set to become the world’s third- or fourth-largest economy by 2030, India could become America’s most important strategic partner.

In coming decades, a strong bilateral partnership will prove vital in managing the rise of China and promoting an Asian balance of power that is favorable to India, the United States and Asia as a whole. India’s success as a democracy also strengthens freedom globally and protects broader American interests.

Yet, as many observers have noted, U.S.-India relations have recently become listless and marked by drift. Both countries are to blame. Obama has understandably focused on competing priorities, including the troubled U.S. economy and ongoing wars abroad. India’s government has been similarly occupied with domestic political struggles and the challenge of sustaining economic growth amid rising pressure for redistribution. Moreover, Indian officials must still nurture the small, albeit growing, constituency that supports a rapidly transformed relationship with the U.S.

This trip provides a great opportunity for both sides to reinvigorate a critical relationship. For its part, the Obama administration should take a number of steps to reaffirm its support for India’s rise, its democratic achievements, and its struggle for security. Notably, the U.S. should reaffirm its support for a larger Indian role in international organizations and help integrate India into the global nonproliferation regime.

In this context, the Obama administration should endorse India’s quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Obama should also support India’s membership in key nonproliferation organizations like the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

India, too, must do its part. It can begin by creating greater opportunities for U.S. firms — including from the nuclear industry — to invest in India’s economic success. It can expand defense cooperation beyond purchases of American-made military equipment by deepening its diplomatic engagement with the U.S. to help find solutions to the difficult problems stemming from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. In short, India’s government should look for ways to sustain America’s interest in India during difficult times.

Both countries should consolidate their cooperation in other areas already agreed upon: agriculture, education, health care, energy, and science and technology. Obama’s trip offers an opportunity for taking stock, expanding initiatives that have matured, and announcing new projects that will provide global benefits.

The latter include developing an international food security initiative, cooperating to increase vocational training in fragile states, expanding clean-energy research, investing in global disease-detection systems, and collaborating to explore shale-gas extraction. In addition, the U.S. and India should create innovation partnerships, which would not only yield direct returns to both countries, but would also demonstrate how a strong bilateral relationship can improve the international system.

The U.S. and India should expand cooperation on other multilateral issues as well. The global economic crisis and new fears of U.S. protectionism have motivated India to rethink its attitude toward the Doha Development Round. If Obama can weather domestic resistance to new international trade negotiations and modify America’s current position on sectoral tariff reduction by developing countries, the U.S. and India will have an opportunity to break the impasse that has stymied the Doha Round’s successful conclusion.

Ultimately, a strong U.S.-Indian partnership is in both countries’ strategic interest. Their societies are already intertwined — and will be even more so in the future — by various personal, economic, and social links. Moreover, Obama should resist the urge to approach the bilateral relationship purely in transactional terms, but instead should seek to strengthen India’s long-term capacity to be a productive partner with the U.S.

In short, Obama ought not to ask “What will India do for us?,” but rather “Is a strong, democratic and independent India in America’s national interest?” If the answer to this question is yes — as it should be — then the U.S. should focus on how it can help India’s power continue to grow.

By reaffirming the U.S. commitment to aid India’s rise, and by emphasizing America’s fellowship with India, Obama can help bring the two countries together on the basis of shared interests, and move their relationship forward significantly. That effort must start now.

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of a new report, “Obama in India – Building a Global Partnership: Challenges, Risks, Opportunities,” from which this article is adapted. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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