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'Pacific President' Obama vows US engagement with Asia

5 min

Wrapping up his Japan visit, US President Barack Obama pledged greater cooperation with Asia as the self-proclaimed "first Pacific President" of the USA headed for the weekend’s annual Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore.


AFP - Billing himself America's first "Pacific president", Barack Obama Saturday said the United States did not seek to "contain" China and promised an engaged US role in charting Asia's future.

Obama also warned he would not be "cowed" by North Korea's nuclear sabre rattling, and repeatedly challenged regional leaders to wean themselves off lucrative US export markets to secure a "balanced" global economic rebound.

The president chose Japan, for half-a-century a bedrock US ally, to deliver his latest major speech framing a new foreign policy, invoking his upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii to show he shared the region's worldview.

"As America's first Pacific President, I promise you that this Pacific nation will strengthen and sustain our leadership in this vitally important part of the world," Obama said on the second day of his debut Asian tour.

He later left for Singapore for an annual Asia-Pacific summit, where he was due to meet 20 regional leaders including China's President Hu Jintao and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev.

His Tokyo remarks signaled yet another break with the foreign policy of ex-president George W. Bush, who is accused by Obama aides of letting US ties with East Asia founder while waging war in Iraq and against global terrorism.

Drawing an enthusiastic welcome from 1,500 people in Tokyo's Suntory concert hall, Obama said he knew many in Asia wondered how Washington saw China's rise to prominence, which some observers believe has come at America's expense.

"The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances," Obama said. "On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."

A day ahead of his first visit to China, Obama warned that he would not waver from raising human rights with Beijing but would do so without "rancor".

He notably however, did not specifically mention Tibet, amid claims by critics that he avoided Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Washington, so as to avoid angering leaders in Beijing.

Some US critics have accused him of downplaying human rights concerns to win Beijing's cooperation on issues like North Korea and Iran.

Many Asian observers believe that the US immersion in bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced it to take its eye off dynamic Asia, leaving an opening for China to seize a more powerful regional role.

"Even as American troops are engaged in two wars around the world, our commitment to Japan’s security and to Asian security is unshakeable," Obama said, against a backdrop of US and Japanese flags.

"It can be seen in our deployments throughout the region -- above all, through our young men and women in uniform."

Obama again called on North Korea to return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear program, but warned Washington would not be "cowed" by threats from Pyongyang, following its detonation of a nuclear device earlier this year.


As he pursues a tentative engagement strategy with Myanmar, Obama called on the junta to release democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- though he stumbled over her name in an apparent sign of fatigue -- and political prisoners in response to US outreach.

Turning to the economy, just before making a surprise early appearance Saturday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, Obama called on Asian economies to live up to G20 pledges to support balanced economic growth after the worst global recession in decades.

"We must strengthen our economic recovery, and pursue growth that is both balanced and sustained," said Obama.

"Now that we are on the brink of economic recovery, we must also ensure that it can be sustained," he said.

"We cannot follow the same policies that led to such imbalanced growth."

With an eye on multiple political challenges back home, including crushing 10 percent unemployment, Obama also told Americans that Asia plays a vital role in their economic security.

But he did not spell out detailed US policy changes to match his political rhetoric, or explain how he could reconcile his pledges with his limited political room for maneuver on issues like free trade for example.

Obama arrived in Tokyo on Friday and met Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, lauding the US-Japan alliance and signaling flexibility on the thorny issue of the relocation of a US military base on the island of Okinawa.

Obama will fly from Singapore to Shanghai Sunday on his debut visit to China, and then moves to Beijing for talks with President Hu.

He wraps up his visit in South Korea next week.

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