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Obama courts Asian partners
TOKYO | President Obama called for an Asia-Pacific region in which China works cooperatively with the U.S., where North Korea and Burma end their isolation and where nations work together to eliminate nuclear weapons and stop belching pollutants into the atmosphere, a grand vision that he laid out in his first major speech on American-Asian relations here Saturday.
The hour-long address in a cavernous symphony hall in this bustling city’s downtown represented the latest in a series of major foreign speeches that aim to rebuild the American global brand by focusing on Mr. Obama’s tone and broad vision, rather than by delving into nettlesome details. Mr. Obama revisited themes that have guided his approach to foreign policy during a globetrotting year that, after this four-nation tour, will make him the most traveled first-year president in history.
“Since taking office, I have worked to renew American leadership and pursue a new era of engagement with the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” he said.
“The United States looks to strengthen old alliances and build new partnerships with the nations of this region,” he said. “To do this, we look to America’s treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines - alliances that are not historical documents from a bygone era but abiding commitments to each other that are fundamental to our shared security. These alliances continue to provide the bedrock of security and stability that has allowed the nations and peoples of this region to pursue opportunity and prosperity that was unimaginable at the time of my first visit to Japan.”
Mr. Obama made clear that he brings a unique personal resume to the effort to reach out to the nations of Asia. His youth in Hawaii and Indonesia, he said, make him “America’s first Pacific president.”
“When I was a young boy, my mother brought me to Kamakura, where I looked up at that centuries-old symbol of peace and tranquility - the great bronze Amida Buddha,” he said.”As a child, I was more focused on the matcha ice cream. But I have never forgotten the warmth and hospitality that the Japanese people showed a young American far from home.”
The president also made a light-hearted reference to another connection to Japan, giving a “shout out” to the city of Obama, a town of 32,000 north of Kyoto, about five hours by train from Tokyo on the “Obama line.” A crowd of 1,500 at the Suntory Hall, many of them listening to an interpreter providing real-time translation, responded warmly to the reference.
By the time he finished, Mr. Obama had the crowd on its feet. Mie Ueda, a retiree who used to run a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Osaka, was watching on television.
“President Obama looks so confident and, at the same time, shows an attitude of generosity. In the past, American leaders seem to think this is an America-centered world,” she said. “But Mr. Obama tries to listen to other people’s opinion and shows an attitude of respecting others.”
The notion that the United States wants to forge partnerships built on mutual respect and shared interests has been a recurring motif for Mr. Obama. Those words surfaced in his speech to Muslims in June, when he said he sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
They emerged again the following month in Africa, when he described a “partnership [that] must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.” And the words were back last month, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. traveled to Romania to tell Eastern European nations that “the United States cannot succeed without you. And if you will forgive my presumption, I do not believe you can fully succeed without us.”
The thread that Mr. Obama has weaved through this series of speeches has been intended to mend the nation’s image abroad, which he has argued (and public surveys agree) was badly damaged by President George W. Bush’s go-it-alone approach in Iraq.
In Japan, where Mr. Bush had popular support of 25 percent during his final year in office, the speech was viewed as an affirmation of what the Japanese already believed Mr. Obama’s election would mean - a more humble foreign policy that promotes the idea that allies are equal partners.
Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Obama is being viewed as “a new face, a new kind of American president” who wants to re-engage Asian nations after years of being “under-involved” in the continent’s affairs.
This new level of engagement has been and will continue to be a principal goal of the president’s eight-day, four-nation tour of Asia. Jeffrey Bader, a special assistant to the president who helped organize the mission, said that by the time Mr. Obama is jetting home on Air Force One, “It will be vividly clear to the people of Asia that the U.S. is here to stay.”
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