Obama seeks equal partnership in Asia

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The Independent US

US President Barack Obama pressed on with his mission to repair America's global standing, telling Asians he was determined to engage them as equal partners in the economy, diplomacy and security.

In a 40-minute speech today that ranged across the multitude of issues, the president declared the United States a "nation of the Pacific. Asia and the United States are not separated by this great ocean; we are bound by it."

While he offered few specifics on the key issues of trade, Obama reached out warmly to China — soon expected to overtake Japan as the world's No 2 economy — applauding Beijing's robust strides as a burgeoning economic engine.

"We welcome China's efforts to play a greater role on the world stage, a role in which their growing economy is joined by growing responsibility," Obama said in the speech to 1,500 prominent Japanese in a soaring downtown Tokyo concert hall.

It was the fifth major foreign address of Obama's 10-month presidency, continuing the sharp break with the unilateral approach that marked international relations under the Bush administration.

Obama reached out through several personal notes that delighted his audience, including calling himself "America's first Pacific president," referring to his time in Indonesia, birth in Hawaii and travels in Asia as a boy.

Moving into the substance of his eight-day journey through Asia, Obama was quick to spurn North Korea's nuclear belligerence, warning Pyongyang that the US and its Asian partners would "not be cowed" by the isolated dictatorship's nuclear tests and missile launches.

Obama said, however, the door was open for North Korea to come in from the cold and its deep isolation — an end to punishing UN sanctions — if it stopped building nuclear weapons and scrapped those already believed to be in its arsenal.

He outlined a possible future of economic opportunity and greater global integration, but warned that "this respect cannot be earned through belligerence."

"It should be clear where that path leads," Obama said. "We will continue to send a clear message through our actions, and not just our words: North Korea's refusal to meet its international obligations will lead only to less security, not more."

Acknowledging Asia's growing power and regional perceptions of America's parallel decline, Obama aides said Obama's Asia sojourn was not designed to reap specific agreements but to show that the US remained very much in the Asian game.

Obama said Washington would work hard to strengthen alliances in Asia, such as those with Japan and South Korea, build on newer ones with nations like China and Indonesia, and increase its participation with a growing number of Asian multilateral organizations.

Joining with those groups was essential to top-priority American issues such as creating jobs, a cleaner environment and preventing dangerous weapons proliferation, he said.

"I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home," Obama said. "The fortunes of America and the Asia Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before."

While most Asian analysts praised the president's speech, Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, warned that Obama should not forget the challenges China "poses to US and Japanese security."

"The United States has high expectations for closer ties with China," he said. "But when it comes to national security, China is a major concern and a destabilizing factor for the Japan-US alliance."

After a luncheon with the Japanese emperor and empress, Obama headed to Singapore for an APEC — Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation — meeting and bilateral sessions with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev and Obama were expected to continue work on a treaty to replace the START II nuclear agreement that expires on 5 December. Both leaders have pledged to reach a new pact before year's end. Administration officials said the two men also would be discussing attempts to curb not only North Korea's nuclear program but also Iran's perceived ambitions to build an atomic bomb.

In Singapore, Obama also will become the first US president to sit in on the ASEAN 10 meeting that will include the leader of the military regime in Myanmar.

The administration has recently unveiled a new policy of directly engaging the leadership of Myanmar, also known as Burma, while keeping in force punishing sanctions that so far have failed to convince it to ease its heavy-handed and repressive methods.

Key to any lifting of sanctions would be the release of political prisoners.

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