Obama Calls for U.S. Engagement with Asia

Last Updated 8:06 a.m. ET

President Obama declared Saturday that an era of American disengagement in the globe's fastest-growing region is over and warned that the U.S. and its Asian partners "will not be cowed" by North Korea's continued defiance over its nuclear weapons and other provocations.

"It should be clear where that path leads," Mr. 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."

Calling for greater U.S. engagement in Asia, Mr. Obama said Americans should not fear a robust China, but he cautioned that all nations must respect human rights, including religious freedoms.

"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," Mr. Obama said.

Notebook: Obama in Japan
Unplugged: Obama's Asia Trip Preview

Mr. Obama offered an incentive for North Korea to abandon the nuclear weapons it is believed to already have and the production program it continues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. He outlined a possible future of economic opportunity and greater global security and respect.

"This respect cannot be earned through belligerence," he said.

More broadly, the President's speech before 1,500 prominent Japanese in a soaring downtown Tokyo concert hall was intended to showcase a United States that, under Mr. Obama's leadership, seeks deeper and more equal engagement in Asia. It was the fifth major foreign address of Mr. Obama's 10-month presidency, this one geared toward setting a new tone for the sometimes-rocky U.S. relationship with the region.

Acknowledging Asia's growing power and perception of America's parallel decline here, Mr. Obama's aides and the president himself had said the chief aim for his eight-day trip through Asia 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.

Mr. 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.

Photos: President Obama in Japan

In his scene-setting speech of those travels, Mr. Obama promised that Washington would work hard to strengthen already established alliances in Asia, such as with Japan and South Korea, build on newer ones with nations like China and Indonesia and increase its participation with a burgeoning alphabet soup of Asian multilateral organizations. The involvement, the president said, is not just academic - but crucial to the issues "that matter most to our people," such as jobs, a cleaner environment and preventing dangerous weapons proliferation.

"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," he said. "The fortunes of America and the Asia Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before."

Mr. Obama also sounded free-trade notes sure to be welcome in Asia, where nations are rapidly seeking agreements with each other even as the U.S. hangs back on new free-trade pacts.

On China, Mr. Obama suggested there was no need to fear Beijing's rapid rise. He called for harnessing China's clout to progress on shared interests like weapons proliferation, a better global economy and a cleaner world.

"In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another," he said. "So the United States does not seek to contain China."

He also said the United States "will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear." And yet, clearly hoping to avoid overly irritating Beijing, he named none of the many and serious specific human rights concerns with respect to China, including Tibet, where authorities have suppressed religious freedom and national aspirations.

"Indigenous cultures and economic growth have not been stymied by respect for human rights, they have been strengthened by it," the president said. "Supporting human rights provides lasting security that cannot be purchased in any other way."

Mr. Obama's remarks came near the start of a trip presenting him with risks at every stop.

In Japan, the relationship with the U.S. 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.

While most Asian analysts praised the president's speech, Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, warned that Mr. Obama should not forget the challenges China "poses to U.S. 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-U.S. alliance."

After a luncheon with the Japanese emperor and empress, Mr. Obama boarded Air Force One and flew to Singapore for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting and bilateral sessions with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

After arriving in Singapore ahead of schedule, Mr. Obama was making a quick stop at his hotel and then going to an APEC dinner.

Medvedev and President Obama were expected to continue work on a treaty to replace the START II nuclear agreement that expires Dec. 5. Both leaders have pledge 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 blunting Iran's perceived ambitions to build an atomic bomb.

In Singapore, Obama also will become the first U.S. president to sit in on the ASEAN 10 meeting that will include the leader of a brutal 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 Rangoon to ease its heavy-handed and repressive methods.

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

Then he flies to China, where relations with the U.S. are bedeviled by Beijing's growing economic, political and military might, as well as numerous issues including trade, currency, Taiwan, human rights and climate change. Mr. Obama ends his trip on an easier note in South Korea, an increasingly reliable U.S. ally.

Mr. 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.

In an effort to move relations between the world's two largest economies toward more settled footing, Mr. Obama laid on the compliments. He noted that the leader of Japan was the first to come to the Oval Office after he assumed the presidency and that Japan also was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first stop on her first overseas trip

"Our efforts in the Asia Pacific will be rooted, in no small measure, through an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan," Mr. Obama said.