In Japan, Obama stresses Asia's role in U.S. economy
By Anne E. Kornblut and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 14, 2009
TOKYO -- Declaring himself "America's first Pacific president," President Obama opened his trip to the region Saturday by asserting that the future of the U.S. economy depends more than ever on Asia -- and by pledging that China's growth will not come at the expense of its neighbors.
In speaking to an invited audience at Tokyo's Suntory Hall, Obama offered only cursory remarks on human rights, an issue that will grow more prominent this weekend as he crosses paths in Singapore with the leader of the Burmese military junta and then heads to China. As a sign of how exhausting his trip has already been, Obama briefly stumbled over the name of the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Unlike in earlier speeches in Cairo and Berlin, Obama did not seem to be trying to shift a global dynamic. But in the only major address he plans to give during this trip, he brought the force of his personal story to bear, invoking memories of a childhood visit to Japan and, in praising Asians as part of the immigrant experience in the United States, relating that experience to his own.
"I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy," Obama said, mentioning his sister, Maya, who was born in Jakarta, and his mother's years in Southeast Asia. "So the Pacific Rim has helped shape my view of the world."
He mentioned his love for Japanese ice cream, thanking Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for serving his favored childhood treat at a dinner Friday night. He even offered "greetings and gratitude to the citizens of Obama, Japan."
The speech was notably short on new initiatives toward Asia. Instead, the president emphasized that the future of U.S. prosperity is irreversibly tied to the dynamic economies of the region. "The fortunes of America and the Asia Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before," Obama said. "So 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 singled out China as a primary engine for sustaining the world's economic recovery, saying the United States welcomes Beijing's greater role on the world stage and intends to "pursue pragmatic cooperation with China on issues of mutual concern."
"So 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."
Obama said the United States and China "will not agree on every issue" -- he mentioned religious freedom and human rights -- but added that the two countries should move "forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor."
To keep the nascent economic recovery going, Obama said the United States and the countries of East Asia need to make fundamental changes in their respective economies -- with Americans saving more, spending less and increasing exports, while Asians spend more on housing and infrastructure and also increase their standard of living.
"We have now reached one of those rare inflection points in history where we have the opportunity to take a different path," Obama said. "One of the important lessons this recession has taught us is the limits of depending primarily on American consumers and Asian exports to drive growth."
In an earlier news conference, Obama addressed what has become a serious sticking point in U.S.-Japanese relations, saying he expects Tokyo to implement its 2006 agreement to allow a U.S. Marine air station in Okinawa to be relocated on the island.
Hatoyama, who took office in September, has suggested that Futenma Air Station be moved off Okinawa or even outside the country. Hatoyama's position was bluntly rejected last month by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
The two countries agreed earlier in the week to form a high-level working group on the air station.
Obama said the two governments shared a common goal of providing for "the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share this space."
But a White House official traveling with the president emphasized that the working group would not reopen or renegotiate the three-year-old deal on restructuring U.S. forces in Japan.