Biden's visit to underline India's strategic importance

Washington/New Delhi, July 20 (IANS) Arriving in India Monday on a four-day visit, US Vice President Joe Biden is expected to focus on four key areas - trade, energy and climate, defence and regional cooperation - during his talks here as the US seeks to keep up the momentum in ties with a strategic partner.

"India is obviously a key player and increasingly so in the Asia Pacific region," a senior administration official said in a White House teleconference call Friday ahead of the trip aimed at outlining the US vision of moving forward with its policy of Asia Pacific rebalance.

Biden's visit, his first to India after becoming vice president, comes a month after that of US Secretary of State John Kerry that was seen as a move to infuse momentum in India-US ties.

The Democratic Party politician, who is visiting India with his wife Jill Biden, is to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday. He will call on President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari as well as meet United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi, opposition BJP leader Sushma Swaraj among other leaders, before travelling to Mumbai for the second leg of his tour.

"The visit is a continuation of high-level interactions between the two countries. There is also the possibility of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visiting the US later this year," said a source in New Delhi.

The issues on the table would include enhancement of economic ties, greater defence cooperation, on taking forward their civil nuclear cooperation and Afghanistan, among other issues, said the source.

India and the US have still to work out the commercial details of a contract between Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) and US' Westinghouse Electric for setting up the first US reactor in India.

Kerry, during a joint press conference with Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid last month had said that both sides were committed to "fully implement" the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and arrive at a common agreement "by September this year" for the first US reactor in India.

Asked whether it would be implemented by September, the Indian official said "it is early, we still have some time". India's nuclear-liability law, which puts the onus on the supplier, is a factor on which the US has been seeking clarifications.

India and the US would also discuss the recent FDI reforms and the prospect of India purchasing LNG from the US, following the findings of large deposits of shale gas in the US.

At present cooperation with the US in the field of LNG imports is held up because American law requires case-by-case exemptions to countries that do not have a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, said the source. The US has now begun cooperation with Japan, a non-FTA partner, for export of LNG, which holds promise for India. American shale gas, liquefied gas found trapped between layers of shale, is cheap. "If this opens up, it will change the whole energy equation," said the source.

On Wednesday, Biden is to deliver a speech at the Bombay Stock Exchange on US-India partnership and on Thursday, he is scheduled to deliver a speech on women's empowerment at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.

Ahead of his visit, the US has welcomed India's decision to increase foreign direct investment in key sectors like defence, telecom and insurance.

Both sides are also expected to discuss US concerns on India's intellectual property regime, which the US feels hampers India's ability to attract foreign investment.

A recent report by the US Chamber of Commerce had been critical of India's IP regime and said India needed to strengthen its intellectual property regime.

Immigration issues are also likely to figure in the talks, with New Delhi voicing its concerns over a bill passed recently by the senate that overhauls the H-1B provision severely impacting Indian tech firms operating in the US such as Infosys, Wipro, TCS and Satyam Mahindra.

Afghanistan, the drawdown of the US-led international forces in 2014 and the earlier proposed talks with the Taliban as well as the new regime in Pakistan are also likely to figure in the talks.

He leaves for Singapore on July 25.

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