NEW DELHI: US Vice President Joe Biden held talks with Indian leaders Tuesday as he sought to calm fears over the exit of American troops from Afghanistan and capitalise on growing investment opportunities.
Biden met his counterpart Hamid Ansari at the start of a round of talks that will include sessions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee and a top opposition figure.
The vice president, the most senior US official to visit India since President Barack Obama in 2010, has said the world's two largest democracies share common goals on a range of regional security issues.
But there is widespread unease among Indian leaders over what will happen in Afghanistan once US troops have left in 2014, with many fearing that Pakistan has most to gain from the withdrawal.
India has spent more than $2 billion of aid in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled in the 2001 US-led invasion.
Even though planned talks between the US and Taliban collapsed last month, the possible return to power of the Taliban alarms many in India.
Writing in The Times of India on Tuesday, Washington-based commentator Seema Sirohi reflected a widespread feeling in New Delhi that the departure of US troops would be a major boost for Pakistan.
"Biden, as one of the original proponents of the pullback of US troops from Afghanistan, is well positioned to explain why the Americans have handed the keys to Kabul to Pakistani generals," she wrote.
"Americans may close their eyes to the reality but it is impossible for India to do so. Biden should understand that."
In an interview ahead of his arrival, Biden said the Taliban had a part to play in the political process as long as they renounced violence.
"Our goal is for Afghans to be talking to Afghans about how they can move forward, end the violence and start rebuilding their country," he told The Times of India.
"We have been clear that if the Taliban are to have any role in Afghanistan's political future, they will need to break ties with al Qaeda, stop supporting violence and accept the Afghan constitution as part of the outcomes of any negotiated peace settlement."
Indian and US officials have pointed to Biden's visit as a chance to heat up the investment climate and crank up the levels of bilateral trade, which are on course to reach around $100 billion a year.
But in a sign of the frustration among American investors over the obstacles they face in doing business in India, a Washington-based lobby wrote an open letter to Biden urging him to address what it called "India's unfair trade and intellectual property practices".
Biden "has a unique opportunity to show the administration's commitment to protecting US innovative and creative sectors by raising this important issue during his high-level meetings in India," Mark Elliot, a co-chair of the Alliance for Fair Trade with India, wrote in the letter.
The issue of intellectual property has been a major bone of contention in trade ties for years, with the American pharmaceutical industry consistently accusing India's huge generics industry of riding roughshod over patents.
India, in turn, has voiced dismay about US Congress proposals to curb visas for high-tech workers employed by the flagship Indian outsourcing industry working for US clients on-site.
The Hindu newspaper however said Biden's visit was taking place at a "happier moment in India-US relations" after recent moves by Singh's government to open up the economy to outside investors.
"Since last month, India has largely met the US wish list for higher foreign direct investment in many sectors and agreed to work towards kick-starting an ambitious US investment proposal in the civil nuclear sector by September this year," said the daily.
Efforts to build up trade are expected to feature not only in his talks with Singh but also from the cornerstone of a keynote speech he is scheduled to make in Mumbai on Wednesday.
Biden arrived in India on Monday evening, heading straight to a museum celebrating Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi. He leaves on Thursday for Singapore.
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