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Obama in Asia: Setting a newly cooperative tone

JENNIFER LOVEN | 11/13/2009, 3:51 p.m.

TOKYO (AP) -- President Barack Obama is emphasizing cooperation on his first major trip to Asia, opening with a warning to North Korea that there will be tough, unified action by the U.S. and its Asian partners if the Koreans fail to abandon their nuclear weapons programs.

The hard line on North Korea was to be a prominent theme of a Friday night speech that also was intended to more broadly showcase a United States that, under Obama's leadership, seeks deeper and more equal engagement in Asia. It was to be the fifth major foreign address of Obama's 10-month presidency, this one geared toward setting a new tone for the sometimes-rocky U.S. relationship with the world's fastest-growing region.
In the speech, to 1,500 prominent Japanese in a soaring concert hall in bustling downtown Tokyo, Obama planned to give his most extended remarks in some time on North Korea, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

Previewing himself, Obama said after a meeting early Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama that "it's absolutely vital" that North Korea - and Iran in the Middle East - bow to international demands that they give up nuclear weapons ambitions. The U.S., Japan, China, Russia and South Korea are partners in talks to persuade North Korea to give up the active nuclear weapons program it has in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang is widely believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear bombs

If the North Koreans comply with the demands, "then they can open the door to a better future," Obama said. "If not, we will remain united in implementing U.N. resolutions that are in place and ... helping to shape a strategy that meets our security needs and convinces Pyongyang to move in a better direction."

Obama made Tokyo the venue for his speech, a symbolically important choice that displayed respect for Japan's long history as the U.S.' chief ally in Asia and one of the region's foremost democracies. The U.S.-Japan relationship is on newly delicate footing after a change in leadership in Tokyo that has the Japanese moving toward greater independence from Washington and closer ties with the rest of Asia.

The president's remarks came near the start of an eight-day Asian trip that is presenting him with risks at every stop.

After Japan, Obama goes to Singapore, where he is to join a larger meeting that includes the leader of Myanmar's brutal regime, the first U.S. president to make such close contact. Then he flies to China, where relations with the U.S. are bedeviled by Beijing's growing economic and military might, as well as numerous issues including trade, currency, Taiwan, human rights and climate change. Obama ends his trip on an easier note in South Korea, an increasingly reliable U.S. ally.

Acknowledging Asia's growing power, Obama aides said the chief aim for the trip wasn't so much to bring home specific "deliverables" but to convincingly press the point that the U.S. very much is in the Asian game.

At Hatoyama's side, Obama promised that Washington would work hard to strengthen established alliances, such as with Japan and South Korea, build on newer ones with nations like China and Indonesia, and increase its participation with Asian multilateral organizations. The involvement, the president said, is crucial to the issues "that matter most to our people," such as jobs, a cleaner environment and preventing dangerous weapons proliferation.

"I intend to make clear that the United States is a Pacific nation, and we will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world," the president said. "We have to understand that the future of the United States and Asia is inextricably linked."

America's relationships with Tokyo and Beijing were warranting special attention in Obama's remarks. Hoping to balance the need to stress values such as human rights with worries about overly irritating China, Obama planned to mention "our commitment to the rights and freedoms that we believe all people should have" without bringing up Tibet, said adviser Rhodes.

Tibetans, governed by China since communist troops took control there in 1951, say they want some form of autonomy to freely practice their culture and religion. China says Tibet has been part of its territory for four centuries. Obama has been criticized in some quarters for not standing up more openly to the Chinese on human rights, particularly concerning Tibet.

Several developments served to detract somewhat from Obama's hopes for a more purely Asia-centric message for his trip.

He delayed his arrival by a day because of last week's Fort Hood shootings, scrambling his Japan itinerary and drastically cutting his participation in a 21-nation summit of Asian-Pacific leaders in Singapore focused on trade. He also continued deliberations over how many more U.S. troops to send to Afghanistan, a decision that once was assumed would be behind him during his Asia travels but now is draining some of his time and considerable media attention.

Obama denied during the Hatoyama news conference that his administration has dithered dangerously over Afghanistan, saying he is bent on "getting this right" and finding a new start to the 8-year-war that is not an "open-ended commitment."