NEW DELHI — President Barack Obama backed India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council Monday, a dramatic diplomatic gesture to his hosts as he wrapped up his first visit to this burgeoning nation.
Obama was making the announcement in a speech to India's parliament on the third and final day of his visit. In doing so, he fulfilled what was perhaps India's dearest wish for Obama's trip here. India has been pushing for permanent Security Council membership for years.
"The just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate," Obama said in prepared remarks. "That is why I can say today — in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."
The announcement does not mean that India will join the five current permanent Security Council members anytime soon. The U.S. is backing its membership only in the context of unspecified reforms to the council that could take years to bring about.
That makes Obama's announcement more of a diplomatic gesture than a concrete step. Nonetheless, it underscores the importance the U.S. places on fostering ties with this nation of 1.2 billion people, something Obama has been seeking to accomplish throughout his time here.
Indian and U.S. companies have discussed or signed over $14.9 billion in deals around Obama's trip that will support 53,670 U.S. jobs, the White House said Monday.
The U.S. export content of the deals, estimated at $9.5 billion, won't go far to settle America's trade deficit, which was $46.3 billion in August alone, but the numbers are testament to India's growing importance as a global market and have provoked a swell of pride here.
"I want to be able to say to the American people when they ask me, well, why are you spending time with India, aren't they taking our jobs?" Obama told reporters in New Delhi Monday.
"I want to be able to say, actually, you know what, they just created 50,000 jobs. And that's why we shouldn't be resorting to protectionist measures. We shouldn't be thinking that it's just a one-way street."
'Defining partnership' of the 21st century
Obama said repeatedly throughout his three days in India — first in the financial center of Mumbai and then in the capital of New Delhi — that he views the relationship between the two countries as one of the "defining partnerships" of the 21st century. He set out to prove it by making India the first stop on a four-country tour of Asia, and then through economic announcements, cultural outreach and finally the announcement about the U.N. Security Council.
India has sought permanent council membership as a recognition of its surging economic clout and its increased stature in world affairs. The U.S. endorsement is certain to deepen ties between the two countries and could also send Obama's popularity in India skyrocketing to a level comparable to that enjoyed by George W. Bush. The former president is seen as a hero here for helping end India's nuclear isolation.
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The president's announcement on the Security Council brought immediate praise from Indian politicians and diplomats.
"I think, maybe, he has gone and scored one better than Bush," said M.K. Rasgotra, a former Indian foreign secretary. "A great paean to democracy and his belief in India's promise and offering to stand shoulder to shoulder to India in its advance and progress. This is a great moment in Indo-US relations."
The five permanent members of the Security Council are the U.S., China, France, the United Kingdom and Russia.
Debate has raged for years over how to change a structure that is widely seen as outdated and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. So it's unclear when drive for permanent membership will ever be realized. But backing it at all is a critically important move from India's perspective.
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In another important gesture to India, Obama went farther than he had previously during his stay in addressing the terror threat inside Pakistan, India's neighbor and archrival. Obama angered some here when he visited a memorial to victims of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks but didn't mention Pakistan, which was home to the attackers.
"We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe-havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice," the president said in the address to parliament. "We must also recognize that all of us have an interest in both an Afghanistan and a Pakistan that is stable, prosperous and democratic — and none more so than India."
Tensions over Kashmir
Obama also offered to help India and Pakistan resolve their long-standing dispute over Kashmir, without intervening directly.
Speaking at a news conference alongside India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Obama said that while both India and Pakistan have an interest in reducing tensions in the region, the U.S. "cannot impose a solution to these problems."
"We are happy to play any role the parties think is appropriate," he said.
The conflict over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region where rebels have sought independence from India or incorporation with Pakistan, has been the main source of friction between the nuclear-armed neighbors since they won independence from Britain in 1947.
Pakistan has frequently sought outside intervention to resolve it but India vehemently opposes such involvement, and the United States has traditionally stayed above the fray. Obama declined to veer from that stance Monday.
Singh said that while he believes a strong, moderate Pakistan is in the interest of India and the wider region, India can't engage in talks as long as Pakistan's "terror machine is as active as ever before."
Singh also spoke to the sensitivity about high unemployment in the United States, saying at one point that his country "is not in the business of stealing jobs from America."
He welcomed President Obama by calling him a personal friend and "great charismatic leader."
Singh said that Obama and his wife, Michelle, have made an abiding impression on the Indian people with their warmth, grace and commitment to promoting relations between the two democracies.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.