NEW DELHI – President Barack Obama on Monday backed India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, a dramatic diplomatic gesture to his hosts at the end of his first visit to this booming nation.
Obama made the announcement in a speech to India's parliament on the third and final day of his stay. In doing so, he fulfilled what was perhaps India's dearest wish for Obama's trip here. India has sought 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. "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 brought the loudest applause of Obama's speech. But it does not mean that India will join the five permanent Security Council members anytime soon. The U.S. is backing India's 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.
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 recognition of its surging economic clout and its increased stature in world affairs. The U.S. endorsement is certain to deepen the 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.
In another important gesture, 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 loud applause. "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."
Indian officials accuse Pakistan's intelligence service of helping orchestrate the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people and say the country has not done enough to crack down on the Pakistan-based extremists held responsible. Pakistan, meanwhile, views India's ties with the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan as an effort by its old rival to encircle it.
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. The only other country the U.S. has endorsed for permanent membership is Japan.
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 India's drive for permanent membership will ever be realized. But backing it at all is a critically important move from India's perspective.
Pakistan criticized the move, accusing India of "flagrant violations" of U.N. resolutions and calling on the U.S. to "take a moral view and not base itself on any temporary expediency or exigencies of power politics."
Obama coupled the security council endorsement with a gentle admonition to India to step up to its responsibilities on the world stage. He said it's important for all countries to stand up for human rights and to condemn oppression even when it's happening far away. Obama said India had at times "shied away" from demonstrating that kind of leadership.
Throughout his time here, Obama has taken pains to cast his visit as a search for U.S. jobs and benefits to people back home, sensitive to the priorities of U.S. voters who punished the Democratic Party in last week's midterm elections, in part over high unemployment. He touched on the theme again Monday.
"As global partners we can promote prosperity in both our countries," Obama said. "Together, we can create the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future."
Earlier Monday, Obama held a joint news conference with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the two leaders affirmed their desire to work together on various fronts. Questioned about Pakistan, Obama answered carefully, encouraging India and Pakistan to move toward peace and saying the U.S. was "happy to play any role the parties think is appropriate" but couldn't "impose a solution."
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." However, he didn't directly answer a reporter's question about whether the U.S. should call Pakistan a terrorist state.
Obama's final day in India began with a grand welcome ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palatial residence of India's president. After that, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama placed a wreath at Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Obama departs early Tuesday for Indonesia, the country where he spent four years as a boy. From there, he heads to South Korea for a meeting of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations, and then to Japan for a gathering of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He returns to Washington on Nov. 14.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Ravi Nessman and Ashok Sharma contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Updates with reaction from Pakistan, detail on U.S. also seeking permanent membership for Japan. Corrects that Singh was asked whether the U.S. should call Pakistan a terrorist state, not whether he should call Pakistan a terrorist state. Multimedia: An interactive with audio overviews from AP reporters and tabs explaining trade and security in each country on Obama's tour is in international/asia_obama folder. AP Video.)