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Obama trip seen part of Asia pivot policy

Nov. 15, 2012 at 11:49 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming Asia visit was described by his officials Thursday as a part of his policy to refocus on the Asia-Pacific region.

In an on-the-record conference call with reporters, the text of which was released by the White House, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama has made refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region a "critical part of his foreign policy" as it is one of the most "important regions to the future of the United States, both economically and in terms of our political and security objectives in the world."

Rhodes said an "extraordinary amount of time" was spent during the president's first term to increasing U.S. presence in Asia economically, politically and through security relationships.

"When many of you ask about our second term agenda, I can tell you that continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the President's second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy," he said.

"We see this as an opportunity to dramatically increase U.S. exports, to increase U.S. leadership in the fastest growing part of the world, and in advancing our values as well as our interests, which this trip is designed to do."

Rhodes was joined in the briefing discussion by NSC Senior Director for Asia Danny Russell and NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power.

In reply to a question on the progress of Asia-Pacific pivot policy, Rhodes said the rotation deployment of U.S. Marines and the U.S. Military in Australia, announced last year by Obama in Darwin, "is coming on line and is helping us deepen our partnership not just with Australia, but across the region."

On the military side, there has been continued focus on deepening partnerships through joint exercises, port visits and continued cooperation with regional militaries, Rhodes said. He said on the economic side, there has been much growth of U.S. exports in the region.

Thailand would be Obama's first stop of the visit starting Sunday, and Rhodes said the country has been a longstanding and close ally of the United States and "is representative of our focus on alliances."

As for Myanmar, formerly called Burma, which now has a civilian government following decades of brutal military rule, Rhodes said the Southeast Asian nation "is a key part of our efforts to promote democracy and human rights."

It would be the first time a U.S. president in office has visited Myanmar.

Rhodes said Cambodia represents "our engagement in the multilateral organizations that are shaping the agenda in the Asia Pacific region."

The president's Myanmar visit, which would include a meeting with opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi at her residence, would be watched keenly as that country has introduced several reforms, leading the West including the United States to ease their sanctions imposed during the junta regime.

Rhodes said there has been "the greatest political opening in Burma in the last two years that we've seen in many decades," adding Obama last year decided to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to that country "to pursue a continued opening between our two countries." The United States has since also appointed an ambassador to Myanmar.

Rhodes said the visit is designed to encourage the Myanmar government to continue down the road of reforms "because much more needs to be done within Burma to realize the full potential of its people."

About Suu Kyi, Rhodes said many Americans have been moved by her courage in enduring years of house arrest in her own country as she fought for democracy. After her release by the new government, Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, which was described by Rhodes as "one of the positive developments" of the government of President Thein Sein.

While in Myanmar, Obama also would speak at the University of Rangoon (now called Yangon) about the future of that country and bilateral relations.

Obama's Cambodia trip would be to attend the East Asia Summit. The United States participated in the summit for the first time last year when it was held in Bali, Indonesia.

Rhodes said this year's participation in Cambodia "is a part of our efforts to join in the regional architecture of the Asia Pacific so that the United States has a seat at the table, has a voice in setting the agenda, and is a part of the discussion about the future of this incredibly important region."

While in Cambodia, Obama also will meet with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Tuesday. That meeting will be hosted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"The president of course will also raise our concerns about the need to respect human rights within Cambodia going forward," Rhodes said.

Additionally, Obama may also meet on the sidelines of the Cambodia events with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as well as leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement.

Russell said Obama's trip would help highlight the rebalancing and the pivot to Asia.

"There was a heavy focus last year, of course, on the security side, which is very significant," Russell said. "But what this visit by the President will highlight, I believe, is the diversity and breadth of our engagement and our involvement throughout the region."

At the East Asia Summit, Russell said energy security would be one area the leaders may want to focus on. Another thing to watch out for would be "what kind of discussion do the leaders have on the South China Sea and on the issues of competing sovereignty claims" among China and its neighbors.

Russell said the U.S. objective is to shape the environment in the Asia Pacific region "in which the peaceful rise of important countries, including China, contributes to the common good, is fundamentally stabilizing and not destabilizing."

In her remarks, Power also talked of the recent deadly violence in ethnic unrest between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar's northwestern Rakhine state.

She said while the Thein Sein government has taken some responsible steps in trying to diffuse the violence, "there are long-term structural issues that need to be addressed" in recognizing the Rohingyas and the welfare of all Buddhists and Muslims and others in Rakhine.

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