VIENTIANE – U.S. President Barack Obama is set Tuesday to call for early enforcement of a yet-to-be-ratified Pacific free trade deal as part of efforts to advance his policy of strategic “rebalance” to Asia, an initiative widely seen as a counter to the rise of China.
Obama will make a pitch for the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact signed by 12 member nations including Japan but not China, in a speech he will deliver in Laos in what is likely to be his last trip to Asia before completing his second four-year term in January.
Obama arrived in the Laotian capital of Vientiane late Monday, making him the first sitting U.S. president to visit the landlocked Southeast Asian country. He is on a two-stop Asian tour that has also taken him to China.
During the visit to Laos, including his attendance at the East Asia Summit on Thursday, Obama will seek to highlight his legacy of building closer ties with Southeast Asia.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama will hold talks with Laotian President Bounhyang Vorachit, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, ahead of a series of ASEAN-related summit meetings through Thursday.
Obama was scheduled to hold a separate meeting Tuesday afternoon with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, but it was canceled, a White House official traveling with the U.S. president said, without providing details.
Obama will instead hold talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
China’s muscle-flexing in pressing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and other smaller neighbors, and North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons developments are expected to be high on the agenda during the 18-nation EAS and other regional summits in Vientiane.
Leaders of the 10-member ASEAN and eight other regional powers — the United States, China, Japan, Australia, India, Russia, South Korea and New Zealand — are gathering in Laos amid frustrations stemming from Beijing’s refusal to comply with an arbitration court ruling in July that invalidated its claims in almost the whole of the South China Sea.
North Korea has also raised tensions in the region with Monday’s firing of three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, following the test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile toward Japan in late August.
Referring to Tuesday’s address, senior White House official Ben Rhodes said Obama “will give a speech that we anticipate to be an opportunity for him to step back and review his Asia policy over the course of the last seven years.”
“I think you’ll hear the president give a forceful case for TPP and why it is essential to American economic and security interests for Congress to move forward with approval,” Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a press briefing last week in Washington.
Obama will try to allay concerns among Asian states about U.S. leadership of the TPP, and he is likely to pledge increased efforts to push the pact through Congress during the so-called lame duck session between the Nov. 8 presidential election and his departure from office in January.
However, the TPP’s fate has grown uncertain as both Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and business mogul Donald Trump, have voiced opposition to it.
Covering about 40 percent of the global economy, the TPP groups Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
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