MATTHEW LEE and PETE YOST
WASHINGTON – The close ties with India that Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton forged during her years as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate could complicate diplomatic perceptions of her ability to serve as a neutral broker between India and its nuclear neighbor, Pakistan.
With tensions rising between India and Pakistan after last week's deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Hillary Clinton faces an early test of her influence in South Asia, where President-elect Barack Obama on Monday said that instability and the rise of militants pose "the single most important threat against the American people."
Both Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have maintained warm relations for years with India and the Indian-American community. As New York's senator for eight years and as a 2008 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton toured India and visited with Indian officials and entrepreneurs, and her campaigns profited from the largesse of Indian-American fundraisers. Bill Clinton's charitable foundation has been funded by some of the same well-heeled Indian businessmen who backed his wife's campaigns.
In her new role as the nation's top diplomat, Hillary Clinton would project Obama's policies, not her own. But even foreign affairs experts who wave off suggestions that Hillary Clinton would lean toward either Asian power acknowledge that the perception of such a tilt could cause suspicions in Pakistan. South Asia experts reject the assertion of bias, but they acknowledge it exists.
"There are some who believe it, but I think most people think she is an objective observer with a good understanding of South Asia," said Walter Andersen, Associate Director of the South Asia Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. Andersen insisted perceptions of Hillary Clinton's bias toward India are "based on inaccuracy."
Karin Von Hippel, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed, saying Hillary Clinton is "very balanced" and "understands almost better than anybody how delicate the situation is between these two countries."
Still, perceptions matter, especially in the region. "There are concerns that she is seen as pro-India, she and her husband both," said one Washington-based foreign diplomat with extensive experience in South Asia. "The Pakistanis definitely see them as closer and friendlier to India."
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue of India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars — two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir — since winning independence from Britain.
Influential members of the Indian-American community have rejoiced in Hillary Clinton's selection as secretary of state.
"Sen. Clinton will continue the close relationship between the United States and India that started with the Clinton administration and has progressed in the Bush years," said Varun Nikore, founder of the Indian-American Leadership Initiative, an independent political organization supporting Democratic candidates.
"You cannot expect that any nominee for secretary of state would have a special relationship going into this job, but we're very lucky that we have in Sen. Clinton someone who is already well-versed on one of the more important countries and emerging economies in the world," said Nikore.
A current State Department official allowed that Bill Clinton had substantially boosted engagement with India, but noted that any administration would likely have done so. The official stressed that President George W. Bush has continued that course, most recently signing a civilian nuclear pact with New Delhi.
"None of this has been meant to exclude Pakistan, but it is a zero-sum game when you are dealing with these two countries," the official said. "You can't do something with one without it affecting the other." The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.
Ties between the United States and India improved dramatically, as did Pakistani suspicions of pro-India bias in Washington, during Bill Clinton's administration, which embraced India as a major power and market as it opened its economy in the 1990s.
The administration's disparate treatment of India and Pakistan was most apparent during a 2000 Asian trip, with the president spending five days in India and seven hours in Pakistan.
The Clinton White House barred media coverage of the Pakistan stop and released only an official photo of Bill Clinton and Gen. Pervez Musharraf seated among aides, 12 feet across from each other. Bill Clinton admonished Pakistan's military government to retreat from its nuclear weapons course and to lower dangerous tensions with India.
In a speech to India's Parliament on that trip, Bill Clinton said he shared many of New Delhi's concerns about "the course Pakistan is taking; your disappointment that past overtures have not always met with success; your outrage over recent violence. I know it is difficult to be a democracy bordered by nations whose governments reject democracy."
Early during her presidential campaign in 2008, the former first lady pointed to the "strong partnership" that Bill Clinton forged between India and the U.S. As New York's senator, Hillary Clinton also touted her role as co-chair of the Senate India Caucus.
"As president I will work with India to make our strong friendship even stronger," Hillary Clinton promised earlier this year.
During the presidential campaign, Indian-Americans reciprocated Hillary Clinton's long-standing embrace of India by giving generously — $2 million at a single fundraiser in New York in 2007.
At one point, the Obama camp prepared, but then disavowed, a campaign memo that carried the headline "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)," a mocking play on the standard reference to a candidates' party and constituency.
The memo, which created a furor in India and the Indian-American community, also referred to the Clintons' investments in India, Sen. Clinton's fundraising among Indian-Americans and the former president's $300,000 in speech fees from Cisco, a company that has moved U.S. jobs to India.
Obama called the memo "a dumb mistake" and "not reflective of the long-standing relationship I have had with the Indian-American community."
Now as president-elect, Obama has chosen Hillary Clinton to be his chief diplomat and highlighted India and Pakistan as priorities for his administration.
"The situation in South Asia as a whole and the safe havens for terrorists that have been established there represent the single most important threat against the American people," he told reporters at a news conference Monday as he unveiled his foreign policy and national security team, including Hillary Clinton.
Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.