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to America’s treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines - alliances that are not historical documents from a bygone era but abiding commitments to each other that are fundamental to our shared security.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.”
“As Asia continues to grow and as new groupings and structures take shape, the U.S. will be a player and participant on the ground floor,” Mr. Bader said. “Not a distant spectator.”
That message has been particularly welcome in Asian nations that are feeling the increasingly strong gravitational pull of China, a country that now has an economic and military heft that makes it impossible to ignore.
The main objective of the president’s Asia policy speech, Mr. Paal said, was to show the U.S. is interested in building a more firm alliance and to “rebalance the region to give the countries that live around the rim of China [reassurance] that they’ll not be solely under the influence of China.”
Mr. Obama drove home that point by rejecting the notion that China would occupy a special role in its geographic neighborhood.
“As I have said - 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. “Cultivating spheres of cooperation - not competing spheres of influence - will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific.”
The president said he did not consider the rise of a strong, prosperous China to be a threat, and pledged to improve economic cooperation and attempt to expand communication between the American and Chinese militaries.
“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,” he said, gently raising the thorny issue of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities. “Because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.”
Mr. Obama directed his most pointed remarks on human rights not at China but at Myanmar, also known as Burma. Just one day before he will become the first American president to attend a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a meeting that will include one of Myanmar’s top military rulers, he called for the “unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; an end to conflicts with minority groups; and a genuine dialogue between the government, the democratic opposition and minority groups on a shared vision for the future.
“That is the path that will bring Burma true security and prosperity,” he said.
The call to release Mrs. Suu Kyi was perhaps his most concrete statement during an otherwise airy, hour-long address aimed at kindling trust and fellowship decades after the guns of war were silenced here.
“In two months, our alliance will mark its 50th anniversary - a day when President Dwight Eisenhower stood next to Japan’s prime minister and said that our two nations were creating ‘an indestructible partnership’ based on ‘equality and mutual understanding,’ ” Mr. Obama said. “In the half-century since, that alliance has endured as a foundation for our security and prosperity. It has helped us become the world’s two largest economies, with Japan emerging as America’s second-largest trading partner outside of North America.
“And as our alliance evolves and adapts for the future,” he said, “we will always strive to uphold the spirit that President Eisenhower described long ago - a partnership of equality and mutual respect.”
The lofty approach being taken by the president on this visit has not always been met with approval. Mr. Obama was pressed on Friday during a news conference at the Japanese equivalent of the White House about whether and when he would visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is a trip no American president has made, but it is seen as an important step in bringing balance to the American-Japanese relationship.
The president was noncommittal on the subject. “I don’t have immediate travel plans, but it’s something that would be meaningful to me,” he said.
But he did make an oblique reference to the only military use of atomic weapons in history, by calling for a world free of nuclear arms. “No two nations on Earth know better what these weapons can do, and together we must seek a future without them,” he said.
The downside to the president’s approach is that he is unlikely to return home with anything that would be called a significant breakthrough or development, said Michael Swaine, a Chinese security and foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“What we could see is statements designed to dampen concerns. That the countries are on the same wavelengths in terms of their objectives or approaches,” he said. “Nothing I would call a deliverable.”
Instead, the president continued to return to the notion that the U.S. no longer views its allies as “junior partners.”
“We look to Japan as an important partner, as an essential partner,” said a senior administration official who offered a preview of Mr. Obama’s visit to Japan. “We think that ours is and should be a relationship of equals. Each of us brings different assets and different capacities to the relationship, but we both have important responsibilities and we both have important contributions to make.”
In tone and content, the president’s speech was most similar to the one he delivered in Accra, Ghana, in July, when talking about the role of the American relationship with the African continent.
“I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world as partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.” he said.
What is likely to help the president more than anything else is that he remains an extremely popular figure across Asia.
“He’s more popular in these countries than the leaders themselves, so they treat him carefully,” said Michael Green, the Japan chairman and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“He’s a rock star.”
Takehiko Kambayashi contributed to this article.