WASHINGTON -- South Asia's potential for explosiveness -- both good and bad -- is finally getting the Clinton administration's attention.
Newly eager for world trade, with a population soon to reach 1 billion, India is high on the Commerce Department's list of "big emerging markets" ripe for U.S. exports and investment.
And nowhere in the world, U.S. officials believe, is there a greater likelihood of nuclear war -- between India and its neighbor and enemy of four decades, Pakistan.
One consequence is a trip to the region this week by Strobe Talbott -- his first as deputy secretary of state -- in part to present an arms-control proposal to cap both sides' nuclear and missile development.
But the outlines of the arms plan have been rejected by India, treated coolly by Pakistan and denounced by two key U.S. senators.
And the U.S. effort to deepen ties is clouded by resentment in both nations toward the United States, tension over the disputed Kashmir region, and worry about where each nation fits into the post-Cold War world.
The results will affect the administration's goals of curbing weapons of mass destruction worldwide, particularly as it struggles to create a united world front against North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
U.S.-Indian ties ought to be on the upswing, now that New Delhi has lost a Cold War anchor with the collapse of the Soviet Union. India and the United States are the world's most populous English-speaking democracies, and India, though racked by poverty, offers a vast and growing market.
U.S. exports to India rose 44 percent last year, to $2.8 billion, and the Commerce Department expects annual increases of 10 percent through the rest of this decade. U.S. investment last year was double the previous year's level.
"India has come a long way in recent years and could be in a position to provide significant commercial opportunities for U.S.
firms through the 1990s," Commerce Undersecretary Jeffrey Garten said in a recent speech.
This situation should be tailor-made for President Clinton, who, more than any other recent president, has put economics atop his foreign policy agenda.
But through his first year in office, U.S. relations with India have been uneasy.
One perceived slight is the delay in sending a U.S. ambassador to New Delhi after Thomas R. Pickering was transferred to Moscow early last year.
Mr. Clinton's first choice, former U.S. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, an influential Washington figure in Asian affairs, became tied up in a background investigation into his connection to a Hong Kong businessman and withdrew as nominee.
The expected new choice, Frank Wisner, the Pentagon undersecretary for policy, has yet to be nominated.
Then there were remarks by a senior State Department official about Kashmir that inflamed the Indian press and triggered an official protest and demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
The official, Robin Raphel, assistant secretary for South Asia, referred to the coveted, scenic region, where India accuses Pakistan of aiding insurgents seeking to separate from India, as "disputed."
Ms. Raphel said the United States didn't regard Kashmir as necessarily an integral part of India forever.
Mr. Clinton added to the friction when he received Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington and expressed concern about Indian human-rights abuses in Kashmir.
India's largest opposition party accused the United States of an "anti-Indian tilt" after the Raphel remarks. And on March 22, the Delhi Indian Express declared: "The antics of the Clinton administration call for an entire revision of Indian foreign policy to take into account the threat from a democratic but no less 'evil empire.' "
The civil war in Kashmir is such a volatile issue for both populations that it could become the flash point that ignites a nuclear conflict. The majority-Muslim state has been the cause of two wars since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.
Unlike North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program is believed to have at most a couple of bombs, both India and Pakistan are believed to have enough fuel and the means to assemble nuclear bombs quickly. Their aircraft could be modified to deliver them, and both are working on missile programs.
As Ms. Raphel traveled to the region recently to mend fences, Washington ignited a new controversy by publicly disclosing the arms-control initiative that Mr. Talbott will carry with him this week.
The aim is to get both nations to cap their nuclear weapons programs. While India is being offered unspecified scientific and technological incentives, the biggest carrot held out is for Pakistan.
If Pakistan proves through inspections that it has halted its program, the administration would urge Congress to allow a one-time exemption to sanctions imposed in 1990 because of its nuclear program. The exemption would allow Pakistan to receive 38 F-16 warplanes that it has already paid for.