NEW DELHI // The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, arrived in India late yesterday on a three-day visit to persuade it to cut back on its imports of Iranian oil and lay the groundwork for a round of Indo-US talks this summer.
The US is seeking assurances that India will continue "to make good progress" in easing its dependence on Iranian oil, said a member of Mrs Clinton's entourage who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
Iran is India's second-largest supplier of oil, after Saudi Arabia, with about 550,000 barrels imported daily. Officially, energy-hungry India has refused to follow western embargoes of Iranian oil but Indian officials have indicated they are willing to scale back imports in return for a waiver on any sanctions imposed by the US.
Mrs Clinton arrived in Kolkata - the first secretary of state to visit the former colonial capital of 14 million - on Sunday after visits to China and Bangladesh. Officials travelling with her said the Iranian oil imports would top an agenda that includes India's relations with rival Pakistan and the future of Afghanistan.
On Monday, Mrs Clinton will meet Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister, to push for expanding US investment opportunities in the region and seek Mr Banerjee's views on the entry of Walmart-type multi-brand retailers into India. Mr Banerjee has been a vocal opponent of opening up India's retail sector saying it would harm poor shop owners.
She will then heading to New Delhi - a move that analysts say is part of a larger recognition by the US of the importance of regional Indian political players.
This is Mrs Clinton's second trip to India in two years. Last July, after arriving in New Delhi, she continued on to Chennai, where she met the Tamil Nadu chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, to discuss the plight of Tamils who had been displaced within Sri Lanka by that country's civil war.
"If you recall, in the past, US secretaries of state or presidents would only land up in New Delhi, but now we're seeing a pattern of engagement where they go to Mumbai or Kolkata or Chennai," said Chintamani Mahapatra, a professor with the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It's because of a new assessment - which I agree with - that Indian economy and politics are no longer driven by the central government alone."
Mrs Clinton's talks in India will deal with Afghanistan and with the upcoming round of the Indo-US Strategic Dialogue, according to a statement by a US administration official.
The talks have been held in Washington or in New Delhi every summer since 2010. Co-chaired by Mrs Clinton and S M Krishna, the Indian external affairs minister, the talks were started to increase cooperation between the countries in a number of areas.
The sessions have had limited success. They have not been able to advance the 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, designed to allow American firms to supply civilian nuclear technology to India, in return for India separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities.
The situation is at an impasse, said G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. He said "neither side can do anything, because of some sticking points."
In February, India's foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai, speaking at the Centres for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, admitted that "[t]here are, in both countries, questions about the state and the direction of our relationship."
"There are … tangible issues - in the US, worries about the commercial implementation of the civil nuclear agreement and lingering disappointment with one major defence contract; in India, there is wariness that the relationship may be turning transactional, with an emphasis on immediate returns rather than upward trends," Mr Mathai said.
Mr Balachandran said, however, that the high-level talks had led to cooperation in other areas.
"In high-technology trade, for example, the US now allows exports of high-technology defence items to India," he said. "That didn't come out of thin air. It came about as a consequence of this strategic dialogue."
In the upcoming round of talks, Mr Balachandran said that he was unsure of what progress can be made. "The administration in the US will now be concerned with the presidential election, and so we don't know whether they will only consolidate what they have done so far, or whether they will be willing to strike out in new areas."
Mrs Clinton's current visit, Mr Mahapatra said, is also a farewell trip, as Mrs Clinton has said she will not continue as secretary of state if Barack Obama wins a second term as president.
"From day one, she has given high priority to the Asia-Pacific region, and to India in particular," he said
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* With additional reporting by the Associated Press