Japan central to Asia plans, Obama says

U.S. also hopes to strengthen China relations

by Masami Ito

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed Saturday in Tokyo his firm intention to build strong ties with Asia while stressing that the alliance with Japan lies at the center of his policy for the region.

But Obama also made it clear he will focus on strengthening ties with China — a bilateral relationship that is often a source of concern in Japan — and encouraged Beijing to play a greater role in the international community.

On the last day of his two-day stay in Tokyo, Obama for the first time gave a comprehensive overview of his Asia policy at Suntory Hall in Minato Ward.

Aiming to dispel recent concerns over the Japan-U.S. military alliance, Obama reiterated how much Washington values the bilateral relationship, stressing it is the foundation of “security and prosperity” for the two nations.

“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,” Obama said.

“And 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.”

The mood at the Suntory Hall was welcoming, and Obama drew laughter from the audience as he recalled visiting Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, as a young boy and being more interested in “maccha” ice cream than in seeing the great Amida Buddha.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, stressed the importance of the Asia-Pacific region to the U.S.

“Asia and the United States are not separated by this great ocean — we are bound by it,” Obama said.

Obama said all nations, including Iran and North Korea, should fulfill their responsibilities in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

He urged the North to return to the six-party talks and called on Pyongyang to disclose details of the Japanese abductees.

“Working in tandem with our partners, supported by direct diplomacy, the United States is prepared to offer North Korea a different future,” Obama said.

Pointing out China’s rapidly developing economy, Obama said other countries should not view its expansion with fear.

“The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances” with other countries, Obama said.

“On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”

But at the same time, he strongly expressed his intention to take a critical stance on human rights issues in China.

The U.S. and China “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 — because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America,” Obama said. “But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.”