US official heads to India to revive strained ties

A senior US official headed to India on Tuesday, admitting that the two countries had "real challenges" to overcome as they try to move on from an ugly diplomatic dispute earlier this year.

Nisha D. Biswal, the Indian-born US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, will be the most high-profile US visitor to New Delhi since the row over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December.

Devyani Khobragade was arrested and strip-searched on suspicion of visa fraud involving her domestic servant.

The detention and treatment of the envoy sparked one of the worst rifts in years between the world's biggest democracies and led India to take a series of measures targeting US embassy staff and interests in January.

Several planned trips between Indian and American officials have since been cancelled and a fresh trade dispute has further complicated a relationship that had grown closer over the last decade.

Writing in The Times of India newspaper ahead of her three-day trip, Biswal said that while there had been significant progress in ties, "that does not mean our relationship does not have real challenges to overcome."

She said the countries must sort out their differences of opinion through healthy and vigorous public debate that "befits our values".

While bilateral trade has grown in recent years to touch almost $100 billion a year, Biswal said it was time to create a more open environment to boost commercial exchanges.

She also touched on the contentious issue of intellectual property rights, calling on India to provide stronger patent protection.

Last month New Delhi reacted furiously to a threat of sanctions by the US Trade Representative's office over India's allegedly weak protection of intellectual property rights and preference for domestic producers.

"Stronger enforcement of intellectual property and patent protection is not just good for American companies but will also protect India's entrepreneurs, content creators and investors," Biswal wrote.

Washington said last month it was filing a second case at the World Trade Organisation over domestic content requirements in New Delhi's solar programme.

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