DATE=3/16/2000 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=CLINTON-SOUTH ASIA NUMBER=5-45663 BYLINE=DAVID GOLLUST DATELINE=WHITE HOUSE CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: President Clinton leaves Washington Saturday on a long-delayed visit to South Asia. He'll visit India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the course of an eight-day mission that will include talks with Indian and Pakistani leaders on critical security issues including Kashmir and the regional nuclear arms race. VOA's David Gollust has a report from the White House. TEXT: The visit to South Asia is a first by a U-S President in more than two decades and it will be dominated by a five-day, five-city tour of India - with which the United States has had burgeoning trade relations in recent years. Though India is the world's largest democracy, relations with Washington were often strained during the Cold War years as new Delhi frequently sided with the former Soviet Union, while the United States built close security ties with Pakistan. However, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger says the President's visit and meetings with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other leaders will symbolize a transformation of the bilateral relationship: /// BERGER ACTUALITY /// What this trip is fundamentally about, and I think the most important dimension is to try to establish a new partnership with India, to not see India as a function of China, or a function of the Soviet Union. But to see India as the world's largest, perhaps most vibrant, certainly the most promising democracies. We are natural allies, Prime Minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee said not too long ago. And I think that's a view we share and have a tremendous opportunity to re-shape, I think, over time to re-shape the nature of our relationship to reflect their importance. /// END ACT /// Plans by Mr. Clinton to visit the region were cancelled after India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and the trip was further jeopardized by last years clash between the two powers along the line of control in Kashmir and the military coup in Pakistan last October. Administration officials acknowledge that the trip comes as at a time when South Asian tensions are at their highest level since the last Indian-Pakistani war in 1971, that President Clinton will urge renewed dialogue on Kashmir and a roll-back of the South Asian arms race. The President's decision to visit Pakistan - announced only a week ago - was controversial and criticized by among others human rights activists who say the country should have been shunned because of the October coup. However Frank Wisner, a senior State Department official in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, says bypassing Islamabad would have meant forfeiting any hope of influencing the military regime: /// WISNER ACTUALITY /// I believe fundamentally that if you're going to do business with a country as important as Pakistan certainly is, at a time there are real issues on the table, you have to be able to communicate. And to be able to communicate, you've got to communicate at the very highest levels. The history of the past has been that we have influence with Pakistan. If we decide not to communicate, then we don't have influence. We can't use our influence in a constructive way. /// END ACTUALITY /// The President's decision is also supported by Shirin Tahir-Kheli, a Bush administration foreign policy aide who now directs the South Asia Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She says that while Mr. Clinton will not attempt to mediate the Kashmir dispute, he can at least press the two sides to resume an official dialogue that has been virtually non-existent for many months: /// TAHIR-KHELI ACTUALITY /// Today, India and Pakistan have zero interaction at the government level, and at any level. And this is unheard of in the recent histories of countries with antagonisms like that. You did not have it in the East-West, you did not have that in the Middle East, track two, track one, anything. So I think it highlights the need for engagement. And I don't see anybody either than the President of the United States in this position to be able to bring that to the notice of the two leaders. /// END ACT /// Aides say that during his brief Pakistan visit March 25th, Mr. Clinton will meet military leader General Pervez Musharaff but also deliver a televised message to the Pakistani people in which he will stress U-S support for a return to democracy. He will also urge that the life of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif be spared if he is convicted in his current trial on hijacking, attempted murder and other charges. Mr. Clinton's visit to Bangladesh next Monday will be the first ever by a sitting U-S President and will be aimed a paying tribute to what officials here say are impressive strides by that country in combating poverty and building an inclusive democracy. (Signed) NEB/DAG/TVM/PT 16-Mar-2000 19:43 PM EDT (17-Mar-2000 0043 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .