MUMBAI: President Barack Obama arrived in Mumbai, India, on Saturday, beginning a 10-day, four-country Asia trip that will take him through some of the regionâ€™s most vibrant democracies in a search for US economic and security benefits.
Obama will also visit Indonesia, South Korea and Japan on a 10-day tour that will see Washington push to prevent countries unilaterally devaluing currencies to protect their exports, a top theme at the Group of 20 heads of state meet in Seoul next week.
Air Force One touched down in this booming financial center around midday after traveling more than 15 hours from Washington with the president and his wife, Michelle, aboard.
The president was to pay respects at a memorial to victims of the 2008 terror attacks here and visit a home Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi once lived in, before turning to the focus of his first day in India: US jobs.
One of the first diplomatic tests for Obama will be at the Taj Mahal. 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.
India has raised concerns about the billions of dollars in military aid the US is funneling to Pakistan, which is Indiaâ€™s archrival but a linchpin for Washington and its allies in the war in Afghanistan. Leaders here also are wary of the increasing rhetoric by US politicians against the outsourcing of jobs abroad, including to India.
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 American and Indian business leaders and was expected to announce trade and export deals worth billions to the US In the wake of the Democratsâ€™ devastating midterm losses, attributed in part to the poor state of the US economy, the White House is intent on highlighting concrete benefits to US consumers from Obamaâ€™s foray overseas.
He arrives in New Delhi on Sunday.
Pressures at home
Obamaâ€™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 â€œbillions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs,â€ and stated his intent to â€œreduce barriers to United States exports and increase access to the Indian market.â€
â€œIt is hard to overstate the importance of Asia to our economic future,â€ Obama wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Friday.
â€œIt 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.â€
The president left Washington shortly after the government reported that the economy added 151,000 jobs in October. It wasnâ€™t enough to lower the 9.6 percent jobless rate and the president said it wasnâ€™t good enough.
On his foreign trip, the longest of his presidency so far, Obamaâ€™s business-first message is aimed particularly at India, where he is spending three full days. Thatâ€™s the longest amount of time in any one country on a trip thatâ€™s also taking him to Indonesia, where he lived for four years as a youth, to South Korea for a meeting of the Group of 20 developed and developing nations and then to Japan for an American Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The White House is going to great lengths to bring attention to the economic potential and shared democratic values that define its relationship with India and its 1.2 billion residents.
On the agenda will be lucrative defense ties. The United States has held more military exercises with India in the past year than any other country, and US 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 Asiaâ€™s third-largest economy behind rivals China and Pakistan and has not recognized its growing global weight.
Washington faces a host of hurdles, including Indian worries that signing defense pacts â€” which are necessary for the US arms sales to go through â€” may land New Delhi in a wider entanglement with the US military.
A civil nuclear deal with the United States was signed in 2008 to great fanfare, but it struggled through parliament and now the accord has sparked criticism that US companies in the sector will be discouraged to invest due to high liabilities.
Also, an increase in US visa fees, a ban on offshoring by the state of Ohio and the Indian IT industryâ€™s portrayal in campaign publicity as a drain on US jobs have set a frosty tone in India.
â€œIt has become so difficult to process visas these days and that is hurting us a lot,â€ said Siddesh Apraj, an employee of Indiaâ€™s second-largest outsourcer, Infosys Technology Ltd..
Obama will also push for greater access for US companies to Indiaâ€™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, a quick decision was unlikely.
A sign posted by the Congress of All India Traders near the Mani Bhavan proclaimed on Friday: â€œRetailers welcome President Obama in India but not foreign direct investment in retail.â€
Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Obama intends the trip to be â€œa full embrace of Indiaâ€™s rise.â€ Said Donilon: â€œThereâ€™s no more powerful way to do that than a presidential trip.â€ Indian officials said Obamaâ€™s visit underscored the close ties that have developed between the two nations over the past 10 years after decades of wary relations.
â€œI donâ€™t think thereâ€™s an area of human endeavor in which we do not actually cooperate,â€ said Shivshankar Menon, Indiaâ€™s national security adviser. â€œWe work together in innovation. We work together in technology. We create jobs in each otherâ€™s economy. When you look at the political military side as well, we work together on national security, on counterterrorism, defense.â€ But serious disagreements remain, and they appear unlikely to be resolved during Obamaâ€™s visit.