Obama to focus on securing US jobs

Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama is expected to avoid security and military issues on his visit and concentrate on forging a trade alliance with India.

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WASHINGTON // With a midterm election defeat behind him and a sluggish economy and unemployment festering back home, the state visit to India this week should provide Barack Obama, the US president, some welcome respite from his domestic travails.

The White House has stressed the economic importance of the three-day visit, the longest of Mr Obama's tenure, and portrayed it as an effort to secure US jobs. But the trip will also be watched closely for clues to the direction of a relationship based more on shared interests than US dictates and one which some suggest will become the norm for future US strategic relations around the world.

The Obama administration's approach to Indian relations has been criticised in Washington and New Delhi. The American campaign in Afghanistan has caused the administration to emphasise relations with Pakistan, with whom India has been locked in a long-term dispute over Kashmir. Coupled with Mr Obama's softly-softly approach to China, US-Indian relations have suffered.

That impression has been aided by the contrast to the dramatic expansion of military ties with India under the administration of George W Bush, not least the 2006 civilian nuclear co-operation agreement that reversed decades of US non-proliferation policy.

"That spike [in relations] was like amphetamines injected into the system," recalled George Perkovich, the director of the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It was unsustainable and probably unhealthy."

Mr Perkovich said the Obama administration had placed India relations back on a normal "upward" trajectory. Indeed, administration officials have been keen to emphasise that relations with India are mature.

"India is a cornerstone of our broader Asia approach," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser on strategic communications, said at a White House briefing last week. That approach, he said, "is focused on expanding exports for US goods, deepening partnerships in an important part of the world, partnering together in the G-20 and other forums".

The focus on economic ties, however, also suggests a recognition that while India and the US share many strategic interests, these interests sometimes diverge, too. Both countries will have to accept such differences, analysts say, not least when it comes to China, the dominant power in Asia and America's main global economic rival.

Pakistan, meanwhile, will continue to pose a problem for bilateral relations, and both New Delhi and Islamabad continue to see US relations with the other as a game where one nation's gain is the other's loss.

"The US has to continue to tell both countries that this is not a zero-sum game," said Mr Perkovich.

Nevertheless, the US would remain a crucial arbiter between the countries, said Michael Krepon, the director of the South Asia programme at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.

"Washington's interest in playing a mediating role [over Kashmir] is miniscule," Mr Krepon said in an e-mail response. "When it comes to crisis management between India and Pakistan, the US role is essential, and recognised as such by both countries."

Critics suggest, however, that the priority the administration has assigned the so-called Af-Pak track has slowed the deepening of US-India relations.

"The president's single biggest mistake was to accept that there was an Af-Pak strategy and give Pakistan disproportionate influence over our foreign policy," said James Clad, the former US deputy secretary of defence for Asia in the Bush administration.

The relationship with India could also indicate the future of US strategic relations more broadly. Over the past 10 years, Mr Clad said, the US has been guilty of trying to do too much in too many places.

"We're overextended and we don't have the tool kit we thought we did. "