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Obama Begins First Presidential Trip to Asia


U.S. President Barack Obama is on his way to Japan, the first stop on an Asian journey that will also take him to China, South Korea, and a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Singapore.

U.S. President Barack Obama is on his way to Japan, the first stop on an Asian journey that will also take him to China, South Korea, and a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Singapore.

The president will waste no time in Japan, getting to work almost immediately after Air Force One touches down at a Tokyo airport.

He will hold his first bilateral meeting of the trip with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama - talks that are likely to focus on economic and security matters.

Mr. Hatoyama has only been in office a few months. In that time he has signaled his intention to seek trade deals with other Asian nations, and review Japan's long-term military basing agreements with the United States.

"These are themes that are not especially welcome at the White House," said Michael Green who a specialist in U.S. - Japan relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says neither side expects a major shift in relations, but the White House does have reason for concern.

"I think you will see the president emphasizing the importance of the alliance, perhaps pointing to new year, the 50th anniversary of the 1960 security treaty, as an opportunity to revitalize and strengthen the alliance," he said.

White House officials acknowledge it is time to reinvigorate and update the U.S.-Japan relationship.

The top White House advisor on East Asia, Jeffrey Bader, says that relationship goes beyond bilateral issues.

"It goes to global issues that we look to cooperate on where Japan has a major contribution to make: things like energy efficiency, where they are a leader; climate change; aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Japan is the third-largest contributor in the world," he said.

Recently, Japan announced it would provide $5 billion over five years in additional aid to Afghanistan, and would move swiftly to fulfill an existing pledge of $1 billion in economic assistance to Pakistan.

That was welcome news for the White House, as the president nears a decision on a revised strategy for Afghanistan that could include the deployment of tens of thousands of additional American troops.

Some critics have questioned why the president is traveling at a time when so many pressing matters are before him - not just Afghanistan, but also the U.S. economy and his ongoing campaign for health-care reform. But specialists in the region say he is to be commended for deciding to reach out across the Pacific.

Ken Lieberthal, an East Asia advisor to former President Bill Clinton, is now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"Asia is the most important region in the world from the U.S. perspective over the long term," he said. "We have huge economic interests in the region. The security issues out there are tremendous."

As he prepared to leave the White House for Asia, President Obama spoke about the U.S. economy and stressed the connection across the Pacific.

"In the coming days, I will also be meeting with leaders abroad to discuss a strategy for growth that is both balanced and broadly shared," he said. "It is a strategy in which Asian and Pacific markets are open to our exports, and one in which prosperity around the world is no longer as dependent on American consumption and borrowing, but rather more on American innovation and products."

From Japan, Mr. Obama will travel to Singapore for his first gathering of Pacific Rim leaders. The meeting takes place under the auspices of APEC - the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.