Obama coming, officials struggle to narrow distance
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Bringing to bear his political weight amid, so far, unsuccessful efforts at the official level to bridge differences on a range of critical issues, US President Barack Obama is learnt to have written a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveying America's expectations from the presidential visit early next month.
According to reliable sources, the letter was carried by US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns last week and personally handed over to the Prime Minister's Office. While details are not known, sources said the US President has expressed hope that concerns of its nuclear industry arising out of India's civil nuclear liability legislation would be addressed soon in order to commence commercial negotiations.
Obama is said to have listed out other unresolved issues too that he hoped would be addressed. These include closure on certain defence deals, like the purchase of additional C-17 aircraft, market access to US agricultural products and resolution of problems emerging from India's fresh norms for telecom companies.
However, he is believed to have made no mention of issues important to India, like supporting its candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Moreover, what is causing some concern is that there is no sign of closure on any of the issues important to either side:
UNSC membership: The US has so far agreed to describe India as a "natural candidate" for permanent membership but India is keen on a clearer commitment like America "endorsing" India's candidature. So, the issue still remains open despite lengthy negotiations with Burns and Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robert Blake last week.
US nuclear concerns: For the US, India making the move to join the Convention on Supplementary Compensation is just one pre-requisite to begin commercial negotiations. Washington has surprised New Delhi with a suggestion that if the Act cannot be amended, then the operator — in this case the NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd) — give an undertaking that the right to recourse against the supplier, as enshrined in Article 17 (b) of the Liability Act, not be applicable to US suppliers. The US has been told that this kind of exception is just not possible and that American companies would have to work within Indian laws. There seems to be limited convergence on this issue. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has complicated matters by not assigning high-level officials to brief US nuclear suppliers at a meeting which was scheduled in Mumbai. Upset US authorities took up the matter officially and, at South Block's behest, a meeting was arranged in Delhi, where DAE head Srikumar Bannerjee was asked to interact with US suppliers.
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