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By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hosts Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday for talks considered critical to showing Washington's commitment to New Delhi in a region where its rivals, China and Pakistan, are U.S. priorities.
Obama's challenge will be to ease the emerging Asian power's concerns that it is slipping down his foreign policy agenda, dominated recently by efforts to craft a new war plan in Afghanistan and curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
India hopes for a clear message from Obama that he intends to sustain momentum in improving diplomatic and economic ties that deepened under his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Seeking to reassure Singh of the importance Obama places on India, the prime minister will be honoured with the first state visit of the 10-month-old U.S. administration, complete with the pomp and ceremony of a formal White House dinner.
"This is a show of respect for the value that we've put on that relationship," Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said.
The U.S.-India summit will focus heavily on efforts to enhance economic links that have blossomed since India's market reforms in the early 1990s. Two-way trade grew to nearly $50 billion (30 billion pounds) last year from just $5 billion in 1990, turning the United States into India's largest trading partner.
The two leaders are also expected to try to narrow their differences over climate change and seek to speed up completion of a 2005 civilian nuclear deal that has yet to be implemented.
While Washington and New Delhi have moved beyond the chilly relations of the Cold War era, sore points remain between the two giant democracies.
Indian suspicions centre on U.S. ally Pakistan -- which many in India blame in part for Islamist violence such as the 2008 attack on Mumbai -- and Obama's increased focus on the relationship with China, another old India rival.
But a senior U.S. official insisted "any notion in India of us tilting in one direction or another is a misperception."
As Obama decides on the deployment of thousands of additional troops to an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, Washington wants to keep tensions low between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947.
The U.S. hope is that the Pakistani army can devote more resources to fighting Islamic militants who threaten the stability of Pakistan as well as of neighbouring Afghanistan.
"The more India and Pakistan lessen tensions, the easier it is for each to do what has to be done," the administration official said as Obama prepared to announce a new Afghanistan strategy as early as next week.
While the official said Obama and Singh would agree to boost cooperation on counterterrorism, India is likely to press the United States for a tougher line on Pakistan, which it accuses of sheltering militants like the ones that hit Mumbai.
Reflecting continuing mistrust, Singh said in a CNN interview coinciding with his visit that Pakistan's goals in Afghanistan were not necessarily those of the United States.
Singh is also likely to bring up China, a rising Asian giant that has a long-running border dispute with India.
Obama's visit to China last week drew heavy criticism at home that he has been too conciliatory towards Beijing, the largest holder of U.S. government debt.
Washington, however, regards a strong India as a useful counterweight to an increasingly assertive China in the balance of power in Asia.
While it remained unclear what if anything might be announced Tuesday regarding a still-unfinished U.S.-India nuclear accord, several modest energy deals will be signed.
Those will include what will be billed as "Green Partnership," a set of agreements on clean energy and climate change technology plus a $300 million investment fund. Expectations were low, however, for bridging the U.S.-India divide before next month's climate summit in Copenhagen.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Cooney)