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Trade, Clean Energy Top Obama’s Asia Agenda

Matthew Berger and Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Nov 5 2010 (IPS) - Just days after his party suffered defeat in the U.S. congressional elections, President Barack Obama is finally taking a twice-postponed trip to Asia.

The meetings are expected to focus on security cooperation, clean energy and global economic challenges, but, in the wake of the electorate’s rebuke, Obama has made U.S. economic interests the main priority.

In a 10-day trip, the president will visit Indonesia – where he spent part of his childhood – as well as Japan, India and South Korea, with stops at both the G20 meetings in Seoul and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Yokohama.

Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says that Obama, whose foreign policy priorities have been mainly hijacked by the fighting of two wars, has wanted to focus more on Asia since the start of his administration almost two years ago.

“The United States is a Pacific nation. The president, as he has said himself, is a Pacific president. He considers himself that,” says Hammer. “And in that sense, clearly we have very important interests to advance in promoting economic growth and stability throughout the region.”

The trip comes as China is taking what the U.S. and its allies see as increasingly assertive positions on both territorial and economic matters. Highlighting Washington’s concerns over these matters, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to attend the East Asia Summit earlier this week, where she hoped to help mediate territorial disputes between China and its neighbours.

Clinton also traveled to other countries in the region, laying the groundwork for Obama’s highly anticipated visits beginning this weekend.

But, following Tuesday’s elections, in which Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives and made major gains in the Senate due primarily to economic discontent, the goal of promoting U.S. economic interests in Asia seems to have become at least as important to Obama as enhancing Washington’s geo-strategic position in the region.

One way the U.S. is looking to increase economic cooperation with India is through a joint initiative on clean energy sources like solar and biofuels, which the countries are expected to announce during the meetings. This clean energy centre would be funded in part by private sector partners, and look to capitalise on economic opportunities in the emerging sector.

Mostly, though, the president hopes to increase U.S. exports to India and its neighbours.

The most recent data on U.S. unemployment, released Friday, show significant improvement from recent months, but Obama said he would not be satisfied until everyone looking for a job can find one. India and other emerging markets might have a major role to play in that mission.

“One of the keys to creating jobs is to open markets to American goods made by American workers,” Obama said Friday. “And that’s why I’ve set a goal of doubling America’s exports over the next five years. And that’s why on the trip that I’m about to take, I’m going to be talking about opening up additional markets in places like India, so that American businesses can sell more products abroad in order to create more jobs here at home.”

Obama has said that for every additional $1 billion the U.S. exports, thousands of jobs are created in the U.S. Already, U.S. exports to India have quadrupled over the past seven years to $17 billion.

That figure is set to go up even more in the near future as a series of arms and manufacturing sales are expected to be announced during the U.S.-India meetings.

Obama hopes to sign new arms deals worth up to $12 billion, including contracts cargo aircraft, helicopters, jet engines and maritime reconnaissance aircraft, as well as a possible five billion-dollar deal for ten C-17 cargo planes.

He also hopes to give the U.S. manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin a leg up on the fierce competition for a contract to build the new fleet of India’s tactical fighter aircraft. That deal is expected to be decided in the next year and to be worth ten billion dollars – and thousands of jobs.

But U.S. arms deals with India may require Washington to ease some export-control measures and possibly accede to Indian laws that require foreign sellers to invest in local defence industries as an “offset” to arms purchasers.

The administration has been pressing Delhi to drop these offset requirements and other restrictions on foreign investment in the country’s defence industries.

It has also taken issue with a new law that holds suppliers of nuclear reactors liable for accidents occurring in India. India signed an international convention on compensation for nuclear damage just last week, so this topic is expected to come up at Obama’s meetings in New Delhi.

The administration is also mulling long-standing appeals by Delhi to publicly support its claim to a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Of the five current permanent Council members, only the U.S. and China have not yet come out in support of India’s claim.

India’s appeals for the U.S. to change its position were strongly endorsed in the past month by separate reports released by two independent think tanks with particularly close ties to the administration: the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the guest of honour at Obama’s first White House state dinner one year ago, is also expected to press the president to put more pressure on Pakistan to curb anti-Indian terrorist groups, particularly the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which two years ago carried out a commando attack on high-profile targets in Mumba in which nearly 200 people were killed.

He is also expected to seek reassurance that Washington will not carry out a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning next year that would permit the Taliban and its Pakistani backers to seriously threaten the government of President Hamid Karzai, for which New Delhi has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and security assistance.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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