WASHINGTON - The United States has called Kashmir as “one of the most sensitive issues” on Pakistan-India dialogue as Washington welcomed the recent steps the two South Asian nuclear powers have taken to ease visa processing and expand bilateral trade.

Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia, said expanded trade links between the two countries would not only spur each country’s development but also facilitate economic integration of the region. “Let me say how encouraged we are by recent steps taken by the governments of India and Pakistan to initiate closer trade and commercial ties,” Blake said.

The American official was speaking to reporters in an interaction arranged by the Foreign Press Centre in New York in which Washington-based journalists also participated.

Blake’s comments came in the wake of a meeting between Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and her Indian counterpart SM Krishna in Islamabad, where the two countries agreed to ease visa processing for citizens.

According to Blake, increased economic linkages between India and Pakistan would “strengthen mutual understanding, create a natural foundation for a stronger bilateral relationship, yield dividends for the citizens of both countries, and open up the potential for wider trade in the region.”

About President Asif Ali Zardari’s raising the Kashmir issue at the UN, when the Pakistani leader termed the non-resolution of the longstanding dispute as symbolizing the UN failure, Blake acknowledged Kashmir is ‘one of the most sensitive issues’ on the agenda between Pakistan and India.

“Well, let me just say on - with respect to Kashmir that first of all, to go back to I said earlier in my remarks, which is that we welcome the progress that India and Pakistan have made in their bilateral relations, particularly on the trade front, where FM Krishna announced during his visit with his Pakistani counterpart a new agreement on visas, but also their determination to continue to expand trade opportunities and to normalize trade with India - between India and Pakistan.

So that’s a very good step,” said Blake, who spoke from New York and also took questions from Washington-based journalists via the Foreign Press Centre’s video conferencing facility.

“On all of these issues, our position is that it is really up to India and Pakistan to determine the pace, the scope, and the character of their dialogue,” Blake added.

 “And obviously Kashmir is one of the most sensitive issues on that agenda, so that’s probably not going to be the first thing that they talk about. But I think there is good progress in the bilateral dialogue, and we welcome that progress, and we - I’m sure that that will continue,” he stated.