Obama hopes to charm a disgruntled India

President Obama is beginning a lengthy trip to Asia with a visit to India, hoping that symbolism and charm rather than breakthrough agreements will be enough to illustrate the value Washington puts on the South Asian giant and its importance as a counterweight to China.

Obama arrives in Mumbai at midday Saturday, just days after Republicans handed the Democrats a major setback in congressional elections. The administration is likely to try to frame the trip around jobs and exports, and the president will be accompanied by a 215-member business delegation that includes the chief executives of PepsiCo and McGraw Hill.

Obama is also scheduled to visit Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.

In India, he will address a joint session of Parliament in New Delhi and attend a business conference in Mumbai. But most of the expected defense, trade and development deals will be incremental.

India is revamping its mostly Russian-made military, a relic of the Cold War, and there could be a formal agreement to buy 10 Boeing C-17 heavy transport aircraft worth $4.5 billion and four P-81 reconnaissance aircraft for $1.1 billion.

Obama is also likely to play salesman-in-chief on an upcoming $11-billion deal for 126 multirole fighter aircraft. Though competition is fierce and any announcement is premature, winning could mean the creation of 27,000 American jobs.

A key irritant is a U.S. requirement that foreign buyers sign monitoring and inspection agreements governing how the technology is used. Dozens of countries have signed these, but India views them as intrusive. "The fact is, there's a lack of trust," said one U.S. defense executive.

The U.S. could sell India stripped-down weapon systems that don't require assurances, but that would create its own problems.

"India is very sensitive about becoming a dumping ground for other than cutting-edge technology," said Harinder Sekhon, a senior fellow with Delhi's Observer Research Foundation.

Others here bridle at U.S. pressure to buy American products, contrasting Washington's largess toward rival Pakistan with its aggressive deal-making in India. "Obama mission: Billions to Pakistan, billions from India," read one headline in the Times of India.

On other fronts, the visit could produce agreements on clean energy, agricultural cooperation, disease detection, joint weather forecasts and commercial space launches.

Obama is also expected to voice formal support for India's bid for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

India has felt somewhat neglected by Obama's focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan and his attempts to charm China. That contrasts with former President George W. Bush, who early on saw ties with India as a way to balance China's rise and signed a landmark civilian nuclear agreement and generally avoided labor, outsourcing and trade irritants.

India is concerned that an early U.S. departure from Afghanistan and a continued Taliban resurgence could undermine its security.

"The strategic imperative for a strong U.S.-India partnership has never been greater," said Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation. "This visit presents an opportunity for the Obama administration to refine and articulate its vision."


Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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