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Back from Asia, Obama weighs strategic partnerships, China's economic muscle

Obama's stops in India and Indonesia balanced security with economic pressures. But back-to-back global summits in Japan and South Korea underscored the administration’s weaker hand with China.

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Such a strategy was more circumspect in India and Indonesia, two potential counterweights on China’s southern flanks. Both countries were flattered by Obama’s keen attention to their economic clout and democratic credentials. But talk of strategic partnerships raised questions over the price of being seen as US outposts against a rising China.

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Indian analysts say conservative defense officials, who jealously prize India’s neutrality, are suspicious of US intentions. US military aid to Pakistan, a hostile neighbor, is controversial, to say the least. This is why three defense pacts aimed at boosting interoperability between the two militaries went unsigned during Obama’s visit. But analysts say that doesn’t preclude a joint hedging strategy against future Chinese aggression, if it suits India.

“I don’t think the Americans have made up their minds if it’s containment” that’s needed for China, says C. Raja Mohan, a security analyst in Delhi. In the meantime, they are building up a relationship with India that “has a value in itself.”

India’s defense establishment will also be reassured by the promise of a strategic partnership with the US, though suspicions will die hard, says Ramesh Chopra, a retired Indian general. “Obama’s performance during the visit will make finalizing deals with the Indian military easier, but not necessarily quicker,” he says.

As in majority-Muslim Indonesia, where Obama’s visit was billed as a homecoming to a country where he lived as a boy, there were plenty of warm words in India. Obama pleased politicians of all stripes by praising two giants of Indian history, leftist B.R. Ambedkar and Hindu evangelist Swami Vivekananda. He also won applause by telling India’s parliament that he supported a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.

Indonesians responded similarly to Obama’s praise for its secular democracy. The trip saw the signing of a comprehensive partnership on educational exchanges, economic development, and countering climate change. Indonesia’s is the largest economy in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and is taking over its rotating chair.

But it was Obama’s personal ties to the country, rather than strategic interests, that wowed most people. “What brought people to applause [during a public speech] was not what he said about democracy and Islam, but the reminder that our countries have many similarities,” said Kurie Suditomo, the Jakarta-based Indonesian representative for the US-Indonesia Society.


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