WASHINGTON — Seeking firmer footing for U.S.-India relations, President Barack Obama tried Tuesday to calm India's fears about Asian rival China, salving bruised feelings in the world's largest democracy with an elaborate state visit and assurances of India's "rightful place as a global leader."
"The relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century," Obama declared — twice — during a news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The two appeared before reporters in the East Room after an elaborate morning welcome ceremony that was moved indoors by rain and about two hours of private talks in the Oval Office. The daylong White House extravaganza in India's honor was to be capped with the day's most buzz-worthy event: the first state dinner of Obama's presidency.
The black-tie party for more than 300, featuring a mostly vegetarian meal of curry prawns, aged basmati rice, eggplant salad, lentil soup, potato dumplings and other delicacies served under a giant tent on the South Lawn, was Washington's premier must-have invite. Menu, decor and attendance details — each designed to celebrate Indian culture and delight Indian guests — were kept tightly held until just hours before guests arrived in their finery.
In a dinner toast, Obama said, "We celebrate the great and growing partnership between the United States and India."
"Tonight under the stars, we celebrate the spirit that will sustain our partnership, the bonds of friendship between our people," the president told the large assemblage of political and cultural figures from both nations.
The Obamas sought to add their own flair to the evening, as they have with all their entertaining since they took over the White House in January. Marcus Samuelsson of the award-winning New York City restaurant Aquavit was brought in to help prepare the food alongside White House chefs and two Oscar-winners topped the entertainment lineup, American Jennifer Hudson of "Dreamgirls" and Indian A.R. Rahman of "Slumdog Millionaire."
Lunch at the State Department was in high demand too, hosted for Singh by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and attended by scores of lawmakers and others. "You're the hottest ticket in town," Biden said to the Indian leader.
From the playing of national anthems, to repeatedly glowing remarks, to the last dinner toast, there was one theme: India is top on the priority list for America.
With relations taking a bit of a backseat since their heyday under former President George W. Bush, it was a message Indians had wanted to hear even before Obama took a just-completed trip to Asia, where he bypassed an India stop and paid much homage to the rising global power of China.
India and China have a strong trade relationship, despite a disputed shared border. And talking of an enhanced role for China in Asian or global affairs — as Obama did repeatedly while in Shanghai and Beijing — raises hackles in India.
Obama also has lavished attention on Pakistan since taking office 10 months ago, hoping to boost Pakistani cooperation in the fight against al-Qaida and other extremists based along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Pakistan and India are nuclear-armed rivals that have fought two wars since their 1947 independence from Britain, bitterly divided over the disputed Himalayan Kashmir region that they both claim.
The president refused to be drawn into the tense India-Pakistan relationship when quizzed about the effect of U.S. military aid to Pakistan by an Indian reporter.
Obama said "it is not the place" of the United States to try to resolve the conflicts from the outside. At the same time, he said America will do what it can to ensure both Pakistan and India feel secure and able to address the needs of their citizens.
One of Obama's first promises at Singh's side was to visit India next year.
He also touted India as a key partner on a range of crucial global issues. He used some of the same complimentary language he displayed while in China, only there he was looking to prod Beijing to do more with its new clout, while with Singh he was lauding what is already happening.
Obama said he and Singh agreed to "work even closer" on sharing information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Obama called the two nations "natural allies" on the topic.
"We both recognize that our core goal is to achieve peace and security for all peoples in the region, not just one country or the other," the president said.
Noting that the United States was India's largest trading partner, Obama said broadening trade ties would help create much needed jobs in the two countries, both wracked by economic recessions.
The two leaders glossed over a dispute about commitments to reduce the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming in advance of next month's 192-nation climate change summit in Copenhagen. Developing countries argue that rich countries produced most of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases on their march to development and therefore should bear the main burden of fixing the problem. Wealthy nations like the U.S. and Europe say all countries — including large polluters India and China — must agree to broad cuts in emissions.
Obama said they had moved "one step closer" by joining together in hopes for a successful outcome in Copenhagen, where leaders are no longer expected to reach a legally binding agreement but instead a political deal including emissions commitments and financing for developing countries. But neither Obama nor Singh gave evidence that either country had moved from their previous positions.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Robert Burns contributed to this report.