BY Philip Caulfield
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
President Barack Obama backed India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, capping his three-day visit there with a significant nod to India's presence as a global power.
Obama made the announcement during an afternoon speech to India's parliament after a day of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as the country's vice president and other leaders.
"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."
India has been pushing to join Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. as a permanent member on the council for years, and members of parliament signaled their elation to the President's statement with a long applause, according to reports.
Obama's backing doesn't mean India will join the council. The announcement was more of a symbolic olive branch rather than a firm step, and the council will need to undergo reforms before any expansion can take place.
The President did not offer any time frame for those reforms in his speech. Nonetheless, security experts said the United States' backing signaled India's rising significance on the world stage.
"A clear statement like this from the United States is a very powerful signal," Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor, told Agence France-Presse.
William Burns, the top ranked US foreign service officer, told AFP the statement was a "recognition of the obvious" about India's emergence, but said reforms were part of a "very complicated and difficult process" and any expansion "was bound to take a significant amount of time."
India was elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in October.
Before that, the country, a founding member of the UN, had been on the council six times, but not since 1992, according to The Times of India.
The council was established in 1946 after World War II and is responsible for maintaining international peace and security.
Obama's speech to parliament came toward the end of the first leg of his 10-day swing through Asia. And though his comments clearly delighted Indian leaders, the president's final hours were not without conflict.
Earlier Monday, White House press secretary got in a verbal dust up with security guards at the office of India's prime minister when they attempted to restrict the number of U.S. reporters allowed into a meeting between Obama and Prime Minister Singh, Fox News reported.
The meeting proceeded as planned after Gibbs threatened to pull Obama from the meeting if the security guards didn't relent and allow the reporters to attend.
On Tuesday, the President is scheduled to land in Jakarta, Indonesia for a 24-hour stay.
There were concerns that volcanic eruptions of Mount Merapi that have killed more than 140 people and sparked fears about airborn debris would force Obama to cancel his trip, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that the trip was still on.
Volcanic ash might be just one issue the President could encounter during his short stay.
On Sunday, 20,000 Muslims gathered across the country to protest Obama's visit and the United States' perceived oppression of members of the faith, a spokesman for the Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir told CNN.
"We don't see the differences between Obama and Bush, they both oppress Muslims, they both have blood on their hands," said Ismail Yusanto, the spokesman.
About 205 million Muslims live in Indonesia, making it one of the world's largest Muslim countries.
During his stay, Obama is set to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, attend the signing of a treaty between the two countries, visit Jakarta's largest mosque and give a talk at a university there.
Obama spent part of his childhood and attended school in Jakarta. A bronze statue of the President as a 10-year-old boy was erected in a city park in 2009.