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Obama vows to deepen ties at start of Asia tour

by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Nov 14, 2009
Barack Obama insisted that the United States was a "Pacific" power and vowed to deepen its engagement in the region as he started his first Asian tour as US president.

"The United States will strengthen our alliances, build new partnerships and we will be part of multilateral efforts and regional institutions that advance regional security and prosperity," he said Friday in Tokyo.

"The alliance between the United States and Japan is a foundation for security and prosperity, not just for our two countries, but for the Asian-Pacific region," Obama told a press conference alongside Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

The trip, just over a year after Obama won election to the White House, is designed to shore up US power in a region increasingly dominated by China.

Obama -- travelling without his wife Michelle -- leaves a clutch of domestic crises behind as he seeks to counter charges that US influence has frayed in Asia, with Washington distracted by its recession and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Tokyo, he promised a "transparent" decision soon on whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan, after apparent divides within his administration on strategy were leaked to the press.

The US president also sought to ease a row with Japan over US bases on the southern island of Okinawa, where the US military presence is opposed by residents and has strained ties between the decades-old allies.

"Our goal remains the same, that is to provide for the defence of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share the space."

Hatoyama, who ended half a century of conservative political domination, has vowed that Japan will be more assertive in its US alliance and said he may scrap an unpopular plan to relocate a US military base on Okinawa.

"This is an issue with difficulties. But it will get more difficult to solve as time goes by," said the premier, who has been in office for just two months.

Opposition to the US bases has simmered for decades, with locals complaining about aircraft noise, pollution, the risk of accidents and crimes committed by servicemen, especially a 2005 gang-rape.

On Sunday, more than 20,000 Okinawans rallied against the presence of 47,000 US troops in Japan, a legacy of its post-war occupation, and a smaller protest was held in Tokyo Friday.

In another sign of his government's more assertive stance, Hatoyama said he will end a naval refuelling mission that has since 2001 supported the US campaign in Afghanistan.

However, his government this week pledged five billion dollars in assistance for Afghanistan to help stabilise the war-torn country that is Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge.

Hatoyama has, nevertheless, voiced admiration for Obama and stressed similarities between their Democratic parties, which both defeated conservative governments on a promise of reform.

The leaders agreed to work together to battle climate change and called for the scrapping of nuclear weapons, issuing a "Joint Statement toward a World without Nuclear Weapons."

They called on North Korea and Iran "to uphold and adhere to their international obligations." Pyongyang has in the past test-fired missiles across Japanese territory.

Obama and Hatoyama said they "aspire to reduce" each nation's greenhouse emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and to seek a global cut of 50 percent by then -- matching a goal set by the Group of Eight rich nations.

Asked whether he would visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities destroyed by US atomic bombs in World War II, Obama said: "I certainly would be honoured, it would be meaningful for me to visit those two cities in the future."

Obama was to deliver a speech encompassing a wide array of political and diplomatic challenges on the second day of his Asian tour in Tokyo Saturday, before heading to a regional summit in Singapore.

But he will not specifically mention Tibet, a senior aide said, following claims Washington has downplayed the issue to avoid angering Beijing. Obama starts a high-stakes debut visit to China on Sunday.

Aides said Obama would raise Tibet and human rights privately with China's President Hu Jintao and said he looked forward to meeting the Dalai Lama later this year.

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