The Indian prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington is the first official state visit of the Obama administration, an indication of the importance the administration attaches to the Indo-U.S. relationship.

  The state visit reflects the Obama administration’s desire to dispel Indian fears that ties between the two countries have suffered as a result of the administration’s focus on the “AfPak” region and its pursuit of closer ties with China.

A series of meetings leading up to the visit are also an indication of the US administration’s efforts to reengage with India. This effort follows initial tensions over then-Senator Obama’s comments a year ago that he would facilitate resolving the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan as well as President Obama’s recent mention of Chinese engagement in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started the high-level reengagement with a trip to India in July and more recently Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns visited India to emphasize the importance of the bilateral relationship.

The meetings between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh will generally reaffirm the overall relationship.  Key to understanding the likely results from these meetings is India’s self-perceptions and ambitions as a leading regional and global power.  India’s economy is the world’s 12th largest, and bilateral talks are likely to focus on India’s  economic and security ties with the United States, including completing the 2005 U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation deal.

But this visit also has to be seen in light of India’s emerging regional leadership and its global ambitions.  As the only developing country with consolidated democratic credentials, India would like to play a larger role in international and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations.

One area where India’s regional and global ambitions come together is on the issue of Afghanistan.  With pledges to spend $1.2 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, India is currently Afghanistan’s sixth largest donor.  Indian reconstruction assistance has ranged from education and health to the construction of roads and the new parliamentary building to the training of civil servants.

Thus far, India’s assistance to Afghanistan has remained confined to non-military spending.  India is keen on a strong and democratic government in Afghanistan in order to undercut Pakistani influence.  Pakistan has openly expressed worries about India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, a view echoed by comments by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who said that India’s growing influence in Afghanistan might “exacerbate” regional tensions.

Yet, with the recent October attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, the second such attack in 15 months where the Taliban have claimed responsibility and Afghan officials have hinted at Pakistani involvement, there is an emerging demand in India for supporting Indian reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan with a stronger military presence.  Such a move is unlikely, since it would be unpalatable to Pakistan and therefore worry the U.S., which is trying to encourage the Pakistani military to focus on its western border rather than its border with India.

India’s growing influence in Afghanistan and increasing domestic pressure to ensure the safety of its citizens in Afghanistan from terrorist attacks will need to be addressed in the talks between President Obama and Prime Minister Singh.  For now, increased training of Afghan bureaucrats in India and other Indian high-profile non-military aid projects to Afghanistan with visible support from the United States will suffice for Indian leaders to be able to counter domestic pressures.

However, India is likely to want greater reassurances that the U.S. alliance with Pakistan and its renewed efforts at engaging China are not going to relegate India to the second rung of U.S. partnerships.  And over the medium term, that is likely to include greater U.S. attention to Indian strategic interests in Afghanistan and the larger west and central Asian region.

Rani D. Mullen is Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary.  This piece is part of the Passage to America forum on the significance of  the Indian Prime Minister Singh’s visit to the U.S.