US PRESIDENT Barack Obama will miss a visit to the Taj Mahal as he cuts short a three-day visit to India with wife Michelle to fly to Saudi Arabia following the death of veteran ruler King Abdullah last week.
Obama visited the king last March, keen to garner support to check the power of the Sunni kingdom’s main regional rival, Shiite Iran.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and First Lady Michelle Obama would travel to Riyadh on Tuesday and meet the new monarch, King Salman.
Vice-president Joe Biden was to have led a US delegation, but the White House changed plans. The more substantive portions of Obama’s trip to India appeared unlikely to change.
Relations between the world’s two largest democracies are strengthening after recent tensions. Obama and prime minister Narendra Modi – a controversial Hindu nationalist – developed a good rapport during the prime minister’s visit to Washington last year.
Meanwhile, India’s Communist parties yesterday held a protest march in Delhi and burned an effigy of Obama on the eve of his visit to the capital, voicing fears of a US domination in economic, nuclear and defence ties with India.
One protester claimed Obama’s visit to India is aimed at building a military alliance with New Delhi, though Washington has been talking about expanding political and economic ties.
The main Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are strongly opposed to a 2008 landmark civil nuclear agreement between the two nations.
They oppose any change in an Indian liability legislation that has kept US companies from capitalising on the deal. Modi’s invitation to Obama caught some in the US off guard.
“It took us by some surprise,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
“There’s a great affinity between the United States and India and our people, but there’s also a history that is complicated and that would have made it seem highly unlikely that a US president would be sitting with India’s leaders at their Republic Day ceremony.”
Obama will be the first US president to visit India twice while in office; he also travelled there in 2010 for an economic summit.
The visit ties in with Modi’s election promise that he would turn around Asia’s third-largest economy.
It also could send a message to Pakistan and China – India’s closest neighbours and rivals – that Modi has a powerful ally in the United States.
The White House plans to push India on climate change, particularly after reaching a sweeping agreement with China on limiting carbon emissions. Accompanying Obama are several US business leaders hoping to forge new partnerships with India.
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