Charm offensive: Obamas in Asia

By Jason Burke

President Barack Obama is in New Delhi hoping to drum up business for American companies and to consolidate relations with key allies in the region.

Obama and his wife Michelle, on the first leg of a 10-day four-nation tour of Asia, will also hope to find some relief from the domestic political fallout of the Democratic Party's resounding defeat in mid-term elections last week.

Obama, who is travelling with hundreds of investors and trade officials, addressed an audience of top Indian businessmen in Mumbai. The White House, aware of the role the fragile US economy played in last week's poor poll results, has been keen to underline the economic gains the trip is expected to bring.

US firms were set to finalise deals worth around US$10 billion ($12.6 billion) with India that will support 54,000 jobs back home, senior White House aide Michael Froman said.

About 20 deals are in the pipeline, including an engine contract for General Electric and a US$2.7 billion commission for passenger aircraft from Boeing for one of India's fast-expanding private airlines. However, the US$4.5 billion sale by Boeing of C-17 military transport planes is still being negotiated.

The President made his first statement at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the targets attacked by Islamic militants in the city just under two years ago.

"We will never forget," Obama said at a memorial to victims of the attack.

The Obamas were to stay overnight in the hotel. An entire floor has been reserved for their use and all 570 rooms booked for their entourage and security. Around 10,000 security personnel were deployed.

The last visit by a US President, in 2006, saw George W. Bush controversially announce America's formal blessing for India's civil nuclear power programme.

"The Indians understand they need to be seen to be helping the US with some decent economic deals. Obama understands he needs to reassure India that the momentum in relations generated by Bush is still there," said C. Raja Mohan, an Indian academic and foreign policy analyst. Indian diplomats are looking for signs of a new US strategic vision for South Asia that would give them a central role to counterbalance China.

American officials have restricted themselves to noting the "emergence" of India and its middle class and observing that "regional dynamics will change fast".

US diplomats last week restated their desire to see measures ranging from reforms of ownership regulations to changes in intellectual property law that would ease the access to Indian markets for American firms.

Indian hopes for the waiving of restrictions on the transfer of American technology to government bodies working on space research or nuclear technology seem likely to be fulfilled. The White House is also set to support Indian membership of four key global nuclear nonproliferation regimes.

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