HONOLULU - President Barack Obama on Saturday declared the Asia-Pacific region the heart of explosive growth for years to come as he placed high hopes on the economic power of Pacific rim nations. For businesses, he said, "this is where the action's going to be."
Obama was in Hawaii courting Asian powers as he sought to improve the beleaguered American jobs outlook. His move comes as his administration has poured attention and capital into deepening relations with Asia as a source of trade, jobs and security ties.
"There is no region in the world that we consider more vital than the Asia-Pacific region," he told chief executives gathered for a regional economic summit.
For the U.S., Obama's outreach also reflects worries about Europe's economic troubles and the need for the United States to tap the enormous base of potential consumers in the emerging nations of Asia.
Underscoring the region's importance to the U.S., Obama on Saturday, as expected, announced the broad outlines of an agreement to create a trans-Pacific trade zone encompassing the United States and eight other nations. He said details must still be worked out, but said the goal was to complete the deal by next year. `I'm confident we can get this done," he said.
On a day of heavy diplomacy, the president also was looking to contain deepening worries over Iran amid a fresh U.N. atomic agency report that Tehran is working secretly on a nuclear weapon.
On the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific economic summit, Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and was to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The timing of the meetings with the Russian and Chinese leaders was particularly significant as Obama seeks to increase world pressure on Iran.
Obama postponed a three-way working dinner Sunday with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after Calderon had to skip the APEC summit due to the death of Secretary of Interior Francisco Blake Mora, in a helicopter crash Friday.
Obama is the host of the APEC gathering, a non-binding forum that draws 21 nations from across a vast Asia-Pacific region. Obama chose to host the event in his home state of Hawaii to illustrate his ties and economic commitment to the Pacific region, although security threats may well dominate his private meetings.
"The United States is a Pacific power and we're here to stay," Obama said.
He called the trans-Pacific trade zone agreement a model for the Asia-Pacific region and for other trade pacts. Seated with the leaders of the eight other nations, Obama said the trade zone would increase U.S. exports and help create jobs, a top priority.
He said the U.S. is committed to shaping the future security and prosperity of what he called the "fastest growing region in the world."
The eight countries joining the U.S. in the zone would be Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. A central topic for Obama and Noda will be Japan's interest in joining the trade bloc.
In a sign of potential tension with China, Mike Froman, a deputy national security adviser who focuses on international economic matters, shrugged off complaints from China that it had not been invited to join the trade bloc. He told reporters that China had not expressed interest in joining and said the trade group "is not something that one gets invited to. It's something that one aspires to."
That pact and its potential payoff for U.S. jobs and business will allow Obama to cast his far-flung travels as crucial to American voters with an election year approaching and concerns of domestic voters centered on the dragging economy. Obama also met with U.S. business leaders Saturday to highlight the importance for interests back home of the Asia-Pacific region.
Addressing the European debt crisis, Obama said he welcomed the new governments being formed in Greece and Italy, saying they should help calm world financial markets. He said leaders in both countries are demonstrating a commitment to "structural reform" that should give investors confidence. Obama said all of Europe should back the 17 eurozone members in their efforts to resolve their debt crisis and warned until that's resolved, they'll will have a "dampening effect" on the global economy.
Ahead of Obama's arrival on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the Pacific Rim summit that Iran has a history of deception over its nuclear intentions and must respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency report "in the coming days." Iran dismisses the allegation about its nuclear program and says its activities are meant to be used only for energy or research.
With Hu and Medvedev, Obama encounters two leaders with whom he's sought close relations despite fraught histories between the U.S. and those countries, with disagreements on human rights, territorial disputes, economics and other issues. For the president, the challenge is to maintain those ties while also pushing U.S. priorities.
It will be Obama's first meetings with those leaders since release of a report by the atomic agency saying for the first time that Iran is suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear arms.
For the U.S., the report offered significant support for some long-held suspicions and lent international credence to claims that Tehran isn't solely interested in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes.
U.S. officials have said the IAEA report is unlikely to persuade reluctant powers such as China and Russia to support tougher sanctions on the Iranian government. But Obama's talks with Hu and Medvedev on that issue and others, including the North Korea nuclear threat, and China's currency, which the U.S. believes China manipulates to the detriment of U.S. interests, were sure to be closely watched.
Obama will be in Honolulu through Tuesday, when he leaves for Australia before ending his trip in Indonesia, the country where he spent several years as a boy. He will attend a security summit of Asian nations.