Nov 14, 2014 10:14 PM

Obama presses Asia Pacific on security challenges

The Associated Press

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) President Barack Obama challenged Asia Pacific nations to choose between "conflict or cooperation," singling out North Korea's rogue nuclear program and China's tense territorial disputes with its neighbors as matters that could threaten progress in the fast-growing region.

"The question we face is which of these futures will define the Asia Pacific in the century to come," Obama said during remarks at a university in Brisbane, Australia, where he arrived Saturday for the Group of 20 economic summit.

Australia is Obama's final stop on a weeklong trip that included visits to China and Myanmar. He arrived here determined to show leaders that his weakened political standing in the U.S. would not affect his efforts to deepen American engagement in the Asia Pacific, which he sees as a core part of his foreign policy legacy.

In a tacit acknowledgement of the questions in the region about his commitment to that effort, the president declared that "American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy." He noted that America's commitment to the region was cemented by the generations of Americans who have fought and died in wars to ensure that "the people of the Asia Pacific might live free."

Much of Obama's Asia-Pacific policy has centered on boosting U.S. economic ties with the region, including through a massive free-trade agreement that would include 11 other nations. But security issues have increasingly become a focus for the U.S., particularly as Beijing has stepped up its aggression in conflicts with Japan, South Korea and other nations over territory in the South and East China Seas.

Obama said Saturday that those disputes "threaten to spiral into confrontation."

"Any effective security order for Asia must be based not on spheres of influence, or coercion or intimidation where big nations bully the small but on alliances for mutual security, international law and norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes," Obama said.

Obama raised U.S. concerns about the disputes in meetings earlier this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The territorial tensions were also expected to come up in a meeting Sunday among Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

China has long been wary of the trilateral relationship between the U.S., Australia and Japan, which it sees as an attempt to counter its growing influence.

Elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, North Korea's nuclear provocations have continued to be a vexing problem for Obama. International negotiations with the reclusive government in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang broke down at the start of his administration and there have been no serious signs that talks will resume in the near future.

The day before Obama departed for China, North Korea unexpectedly released two Americans it had detained, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. The president had secretly dispatched James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, to Pyongyang to negotiate their release.

However, Obama has shut down any speculation that the surprise overture from North Korea could be a precursor to negotiations on broader issues. He said the U.S. needs more than "small gestures" from North Korea before reopening those efforts.


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