Obama speech on Asia well-received in region

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US President Barack Obama's first big speech on Asia had a little something for just about everyone. He was tough on North Korea and Myanmar, but offered a way back to the fold. He was big on Japan and on China, whose rise, he said, should be welcomed, not feared.

India, however, got skipped over. And Taiwan was off his radar.

Interrupted several times by applause and met at the end by a standing ovation, the speech was intended to underscore Obama's desire to engage with the world's most populous region. He concluded by calling himself "America's first Pacific president."

Obama held out his highest praise for Japan, which has for decades been Washington's closest security partner in the region but has lately felt anxious it is being left behind by the economic and military growth of neighboring China.

Japanese experts said Obama handled that sensitivity deftly.

"He confirmed that the US is an Asia-Pacific nation," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, a private think tank. "If Obama talked too much about China ... some Japanese people would feel he is preoccupied with China. But the reality is that Obama was very balanced between China and other Asian regions."

Watanabe said he was impressed that Obama will be the first US president to meet with all 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — including military-ruled Myanmar — this weekend in Singapore.

China welcomed Obama's comments that growing economic success there can benefit all.

"We welcome America displaying a constructive approach to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement.

"A good China-US relationship is not only beneficial to both countries and to the people of both countries, but it also benefits the peace and development of the Asia-Pacific region and the world."

Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Obama did not want to go to Asia to renew differences.

"The differences are clear, everybody knows them. He wants to make clear we share some fundamental values," said Shen, who did not hear the speech, but was informed of its content.

Still, others thought Obama went too easy on Beijing.

Takehiko Yamamoto, an international relations professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, said Obama, while seeing China as a huge, growing market for the U.S., should not forget the challenges its poses to U.S. and Japanese security.

"The United States has high expectations for closer ties with China, as part of a trilateral partnership of the world's top three economies," he said. "But when it comes to national security, China is a major concern and a destabilizing factor for the Japan-US alliance."

Some observers in Taiwan shared that view.

Lo Chih-cheng, a political science professor at Taipei's Soochow University, said Obama's engagement policy may send a signal to the region that China is no longer a security threat, although it is rapidly improving its military.

"Obama must not simply say 'yes' to China, but rather say 'no' when he needs to," Lo said. "His stressing engagement with China will raise the question of what priority the US gives to its security treaty with Japan."

North Korea was the target of Obama's most pointed remarks — but he added to that a tone of conciliation, a possible future of economic opportunity and greater global security and respect.

A senior South Korean official said that message shows Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak agree on the need to draw Pyongyang back into the international fold without confrontation, and to convince the regime of the benefits of engagement.

"President Obama reaffirmed the message that the United States has consistently been sending, which is that there's a chance for North Korea to improve the lives of its people if it chooses another path," the official said, asking not to be identified because of diplomatic protocol.

"This is the same line as what our president has been saying," he said in Singapore, where Lee is attending a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders.

Obama also had firm words for Myanmar, also called Burma. He said his new policy of direct communication with the Southeast Asian nation's ruling junta was built on the failure of U.S. sanctions in bringing about political reform.

While the sanctions will remain in place, he outlined "clear steps" that the junta must take, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including longtime democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for most of the last two decades. He said opening a dialogue with minority groups is another step. Reform on human rights will bring the country "true security and prosperity," he said.

Obama did not touch on India, which raised some eyebrows.

Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of independent Center for Public Policy Studies, a think tank in Kuala Lumpur, said that was an oversight.

"He may be making a mistake if he over-concentrates on one big giant, China, at the expense of the other big giant, India," he said.

But he added by giving the speech Obama is showing he's changing direction from the previous U.S. leadership to be more engaged with Asia. Navaratnam said previous presidents "sounded condescending and somewhat aloof."

"He's realistic in recognizing the rising power, not only of China, but also the whole of Asia," he said.