Biden visit a key part of Obama overtures to India

SINGAPORE - Most of the time, politics can resemble those Magic Eye 3-D images that took the world by storm about 20 years ago.

Look deeper and the hidden patterns emerge.

For instance, US Vice-President Joe Biden's visit to Singapore last week signals Washington's view of the city-state as a vital cog in South-east Asia.

Likewise, Mr Biden's flight path this week reveals a significant emphasis on US-India ties. Just a month after Secretary of State John Kerry visited New Delhi, Mr Biden followed suit.

On one level, the two VIP delegations are paving the way for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's trip to Washington in September to meet President Barack Obama. On another level, the overtures by the US come on the heels of India's tense three-week military border standoff with China that was finally resolved in May.

India is potentially a major player in the revamped foreign policy agenda of the White House. It is not hard to see why the India-US Strategic Dialogue was instituted in 2009: India has crucial borders with China and Pakistan and lies in close proximity to Afghanistan, but there are also commercial considerations.

The Kerry-Biden-Obama progression of talks revolves around trade and defence issues, but the real attraction lies in cementing an elusive civil nuclear energy deal. Despite a 2008 bilateral agreement, this has not transpired because of strict liability terms imposed by India.

It was certainly among the major goals to which President Obama alluded during his 2010 visit to India, hailing the relationship as a "defining partnership".

But the big deals did not always follow the path of friendship hailed by Mr Obama. Even as the economy of India, the region's largest democracy, boomed between 2008 and 2012, New Delhi last year awarded an estimated US$20 billion (S$25.3 billion) defence contract to France instead.

Nonetheless, Washington sees India as a fulcrum in the non-stop balancing act with Afghanistan, Iran, China and Pakistan. According to Mr Kerry, the White House will also guide India through any political turbulence it might experience with Kabul.

But it must also assuage India's misgivings over the fact that the US is now ready for talks with the Taleban. New Delhi sees danger in this planned dialogue, which it feels will in turn strengthen the regional role of Pakistan, a country with which it has fought three wars since 1965.

As India battles a slowing economy and a fall in the value of the rupee, it needs serious measures to arrest the 21 per cent slide in foreign investment on its soil. This in turn explains New Delhi's landmark decision on July 17 inviting foreign investors for the first time to buy into three major sectors - defence, power and telecommunications.

But implementation delays and infrastructure are still major stumbling blocks in India. On July 17, Korean steel giant Posco abandoned plans for a US$5.3 billion plant because of delays over mining rights. The next day, ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, scrapped a planned US$8.5 billion plant, in part because of a seven-year delay in land allotment.

Opening three critical sectors to foreign investors has little substantial meaning if the country cannot persuade Big Industry to come on board for the long haul.

Reform is also a major part of the overall agenda of the other visitor to Singapore this week, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called yesterday for high-level talks with China.

Having swept Parliament's Upper House election this week, his Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition now holds the country's legislative reins as well.

This paves the way for Mr Abe to take the hard decisions on key issues. Apart from the comprehensive "three arrows" of his economic revival plan, he must now deal with the unpopular option of foreshadowed Budget cuts.

And in addition to the rebuilding process after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that claimed nearly 19,000 lives, he must determine the future of nuclear power and the core question of whether Japan should bring its reactors back online despite widespread public opposition.

Mr Abe's party also favours widening the role of the country's military, a critical component in territorial issues with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Both countries have deployed naval vessels in the area and Japan scrambled fighter jets on Wednesday in response to a Chinese military aircraft near the islands.

Last week's defence agency report advocating the need for Japanese amphibious units that mirror the skills of US Marines should come as no surprise. Last month, Japanese forces and US Marines took part in the Dawn Blitz joint manoeuvres along the California coast, sending a strong signal to China.

It was no accident that the drill was designed to sharpen Japan's response against an invading force on an island.

In the Middle East, despite the focus on tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria to camps in Turkey and Jordan, the arrival in Damascus this week of just two people made significant ripples.

If Ake Sellstrom and Angela Kane, senior United Nations inspectors, are indeed given unfettered access to areas of the country where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used, their findings could determine the next phase of the response by the international community.

In London, there was inescapable irony that the world's media was camped for weeks outside the main entrance of St Mary's Hospital for the birth of Britain's future king, but was gazumped on Monday by two freelancers who monitored a side entrance instead.

To them went the honour of breaking the news that Kate was in labour - roughly an hour before Buckingham Palace confirmed it.


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