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Barack Obama

Q+A: Economic issues on Obama's post-vote Asian agenda

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A weakened President Barack Obama, hit by big Democratic Party losses in midterm elections, on Friday leaves for a 10-day trip to Asia, where security, trade and other economic issues top the agenda.

Obama will travel to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan before returning to Washington on November 14.

Here are some questions and answers about his trip and issues expected to come up at each stop:

WHY IS OBAMA GOING TO INDIA?

Obama is visiting India November 6-8 because the nation of 1.2 billion is a rising power, a democracy and country with which the United States is building a strategic partnership, White House officials said.

There are a host of issues on the table as Obama makes India not just the first stop on the trip, but his longest visit as president to any one foreign country. Washington sees India as a counterbalance to China and wants to dramatically increase trade and develop its relationship with New Delhi.

“You have a rising China that is now starting to get a bit aggressive toward its neighbors,” said Walter Andersen a former U.S. State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “India is a balancing power. There aren’t many in Asia -- Japan and India, and that’s about it.”

Trade between the United States and India totaled only $33 billion in the first eight months of 2010, dwarfed by the $296 billion in U.S.-China trade, which is skewed heavily toward Chinese exports. More 200 U.S. companies will attend a meeting of business leaders in Mumbai as part of the trade push and major contract announcements are expected during the visit.

The United States and India also want to deepen their security and counter-terrorism relationships. Obama’s first stop on the trip will be a memorial to the 2008 attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, where Obama will stay.

WHAT IS ON THE AGENDA IN INDONESIA?

Obama’s November 9-10 trip to Indonesia comes after twice canceling visits to the world’s largest Muslim nation.

Obama will announce a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia on security, economic and people-to-people issues, said Jeffrey Bader, the president’s top Asian adviser. Obama, who plans to return to Indonesia in 2011 for an Asian summit, is also expected to discuss plans for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to visit the United States.

Obama, who lived in Indonesia for four years as a child and remains hugely popular there, will use the visit to reach out to the Muslim world. He will visit the Istiqlal Mosque, one of the world’s largest, and make a major outdoor speech that aides said is expected to draw large crowds.

First lady Michelle Obama is accompanying the president to India and Indonesia.

WHAT WILL COME OUT OF SEOUL?

Obama’s time in Seoul on November 11-12 will be dominated by the G20 summit, but he will also hold a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a close ally.

Experts will look for the United States to leave the summit with at least some expressions of support from other leaders on the Chinese currency. Obama has called on China to allow appreciation of its yuan currency, which U.S. officials say is kept artificially low, hurting U.S. jobs and competitiveness.

“In Korea, the benchmark will be generally a good G20 meeting,” said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That means some sounds on currency.”

Obama will have a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the G20, the seventh bilateral meeting between the two leaders. Aides said Obama will bring up the Chinese currency on all of his Asian stops.

The biggest issue on the U.S.-South Korean bilateral agenda will be the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2007 but has been languishing in the U.S. Congress. Negotiators are putting “maximum effort” toward resolving objections to the pact before Obama arrives in Seoul.

The Republicans’ gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections could improve the chances for the agreement, because major opposition to the deal had come from Obama’s fellow Democrats.

Aides said Lee and Obama also will discuss efforts to push North Korea to disable its nuclear arms program, but that economic issues will be the focus of this visit.

WHY IS HE GOING TO YOKOHAMA?

Obama will be in Yokohama, Japan, November 13-14, for an Asia-Pacific leaders conference that also provides Obama with a chance to sit down with Japan’s new prime minister, Naoto Kan.

Obama and Kan are expected to reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The relationship was frayed last year by a feud over where to relocate the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base on Okinawa and concern that the Democratic Party of Japan’s vow to take a diplomatic stance more independent of Washington meant it would put more emphasis on China.

But recent concerns about China’s naval activities could help strengthen U.S.-Japan ties and push Tokyo back into Washington’s security embrace.

Kan is leaning toward agreeing to join the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade initiative, despite an outcry from some lawmakers in his ruling party worried about damage to politically powerful farm groups.

Obama’s main goal at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting will be obtaining assurances that other leaders in the 21-nation grouping will attend next year’s APEC summit in Hawaii, and setting the stage for some progress there.

“You should look for expansion and commitment on the TPP,” Bower said, like commitments from Japan and South Korea to join.

Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo; editing by Deborah Charles and Mohammad Zargham

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