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Obama arrives in Mumbai for first leg of Asia tour

06 November, 2010

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MUMBAI: US President Barack Obama arrived in Mumbai on Saturday for the first leg of a trade-focused Asia tour to create new markets for US firms and fresh jobs back home.

Obama will also visit Indonesia, South Korea and Japan on a10-day tour that will see Washington push to prevent countries unilaterally devaluing currencies to protect their exports, atop theme at the Group of 20 heads of state meet in Seoul next week.

In Mumbai, Obama`s first stop will be the luxury Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, where he will pay respects to the victims of the 2008 attacks at one of the primary targets of gunmen who slaughtered 166 people.

One of the first diplomatic tests for Obama will be at the Taj. Indians will want a strong statement against Pakistan for fostering militants, but Washington must tread a fine line between appeasing New Delhi and supporting its regional ally.

Across town, police have removed coconuts around Mani Bhavan, where Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi stayed while in Mumbai and which now serves as a museum that Obama will visit on Saturday.

He will then attend a meeting with hundreds of U.S. and Indian business leaders. He arrives in New Delhi on Sunday.

Obama`s Saturday-to-Monday trip to India started just four days after his Democratic party sustained big election losses tied to the weak economy, raising some doubts over how much the trip can yield given the pressures at home.

But Obama clearly outlined that his goal was to strike "billions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs", and stated his intent to "reduce barriers to United States exports and increase access to the Indian market".

"It is hard to overstate the importance of Asia to our economic future," Obama wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday.

"It can be tempting, in times of economic difficulty, to turn inward, away from trade and commerce with other nations. But in our interconnected world, that is not a path to growth, and that is not a path to jobs. We cannot be shut out of these markets."

The United States has held more military exercises with India in the past year than any other country, and U.S. firms Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp are bidding for a $11 billion deal for 126 fighter jets.

But first, Obama will have to counter Indian perceptions he has relegated Asia`s third-largest economy behind rivals China and Pakistan and has not recognised its growing global weight.

Washington faces a host of hurdles, including Indian worries that signing defence pacts -- which are necessary for the U.S. arms sales to go through -- may land New Delhi in a wider entanglement with the U.S. military.

A civil nuclear deal with the United States was signed in2008 to great fanfare, but it struggled through parliament and now the accord has sparked criticism that U.S. companies in the sector will be discouraged to invest due to high liabilities.

Also, an increase in U.S. visa fees, a ban on offshoring by the state of Ohio and the Indian IT industry`s portrayal in campaign publicity as a drain on U.S. jobs have set a frosty tone in India.

"It has become so difficult to process visas these days and that is hurting us a lot," said Siddesh Apraj, an employee of India`s second-largest outsourcer, Infosys Technology Ltd..

Obama will also push for greater access for U.S. companies to India`s market of 1.2 billion people. But given the political opposition in India to moves such as modern retail that could open to the market to firms such as Wal-Mart, aquick decision was unlikely.

A sign posted by the Congress of All India Traders near the Mani Bhavan proclaimed on Friday: "Retailers welcome President Obama in India but not foreign direct investment in retail."


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