TOKYO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama pledged Saturday to deepen dialogue with China rather than seek to contain the rising power, as he laid out a vision for greater engagement with a vibrant Asia-Pacific region.
Calling himself “America’s first Pacific President,” Hawaii-born Obama signaled his commitment to the region, but gave no new specifics on how to reinvigorate a U.S. trade agenda many see as stalled.
Obama reaffirmed Washington’s decades-old alliance with Japan, its most important ally in the region, strained lately by a dispute over a U.S. military base and questions about the future of the ties as both countries adapt to a rising China.
“But while our commitment to this region begins in Japan, it does not end here,” Obama said in a speech to 1,500 people in the Japanese capital, his first stop on a nine-day Asian tour.
“So I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region. This is where we engage in much of our commerce and buy many of our goods.
“And this is where we can export more of our own products and create jobs back home in the process,” Obama said.
The U.S. president, who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and enjoyed green tea-flavored ice cream when he visited Japan as a young boy, said the Pacific Rim had shaped his world view.
He welcomed Beijing’s growing global role but said its increased economic clout came with growing responsibility.
“So the United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances. On the contrary, the rise of a strong, and prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations,” he said, adding he would seek improved communication between the two countries’ militaries.
Obama has been criticized by some who believe he is downplaying human rights issues, but he stressed their importance in his address as a core U.S. value.
“Of course, we will not agree on every issue, and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear — and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people.”
Obama said Washington would work with Transpacific Partnership countries to try to forge a regional trade deal, but stopped short of saying Washington would join the pact.
“Our intent is to engage with them to see whether we can shape that initiative into one that is comprehensive and very high standard and serve as a platform for further trade liberalization and integration in the region,” Michael Froman, White House deputy national security adviser, told a briefing when asked to talk more about Obama’s plan.
The former U.S. administration said last year it would launch talks to join the partnership with Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand, which spurred talk among other Asian nations on a broader Asia-Pacific free trade deal.
The president urged developing nations to take “substantial actions” to curb the emissions causing global warming, a topic he is expected to take up in China — one of the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters with the United States.
“I have no illusions that this will be easy, but the contours of a way forward are clear. All nations must accept their responsibility,” he said in his speech.
Obama reiterated his call for a world free of nuclear weapons to applause from his audience in Japan, the only country to have suffered atomic bombings. But he vowed to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as it was needed.
“Now let me be clear: so long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a strong and effective nuclear deterrent that guarantees the defense of our allies, including South Korea and Japan,” he said.
Obama also urged an unpredictable North Korea to return to stalled multilateral talks on its nuclear program, but repeated his willingness to engage in direct diplomacy.
“We will not be cowed by threats, and 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,” he said.
Obama reiterated his call to redress the economic imbalances blamed by many for the global financial crisis.
“First, we must strengthen our economic recovery, and pursue growth that is both balanced and sustained,” he said.
“Now that we are on the brink of economic recovery, we must also ensure that it can be sustained. We simply cannot return to the same cycles of boom and bust that led us into a global recession. We cannot follow the same policies that led to such imbalanced growth.”
Fresh government figures on the U.S. trade deficit, which ballooned by more than 18 percent to $36.5 billion in September, could add urgency to Obama’s efforts to seek greater export opportunities in China and other Asian countries.
The import growth may reinforce U.S. concerns that China’s currency is undervalued against the dollar, which U.S. manufacturers say gives Chinese companies an unfair advantage.
Obama’s speech did not address the currency issue, but he is expected to take it up during his three-day stop in China, which starts Sunday after he attends an Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore. He also travels to South Korea.
Writing by Linda Sieg and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jon Hemming