Rolling out his approach toward the Pacific Rim, President Obama stressed in Tokyo today that he wants a cooperative relationship with China in which the two nations act as responsible global powers, setting aside differences to cope with climate change, nuclear proliferation and economic instability.
Obama said the U.S. has no wish to “contain” China, a strategy that grew out of the Cold War era when the American government strove to block the spread of communism.
“I know there are many who question how the United States perceives China’s emergence,” he said. “But, as I have said, in an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation -- not competing spheres of influence -- will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific.”
Obama’s half-hour speech at a concert hall was warmly received by an audience of about 1,500 Japanese. It was interrupted by applause more than a dozen times, and he got a standing ovation at the end. Weaving in bits of his biography, Obama said his family’s roots in Asia give him a perspective unique among U.S. presidents.
He told the crowd that he “lived in Indonesia as a boy. “My sister, Maya, was born in Jakarta, and later married a Chinese Canadian. My mother spent nearly a decade working in the villages of Southeast Asia, helping women buy a sewing machine or an education that might give them a foothold in the world economy. So the Pacific Rim has helped shape my view of the world.”
Obama is on the second day of a weeklong trip to Asia. He will spend more than two days in China, where he will meet with the country’s leaders and tour the Great Wall.
Obama’s speech trod a bit of a diplomatic minefield. He sought to make clear that the U.S. does not view China as a strategic threat. At the same time, he did not want to ignore deep differences over China’s approach to human rights and political dissent.
“So the United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances,” Obama said. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”
Obama offered an implicit rebuke of China’s leadership -- its censorship of the Internet and preference for one-party rule. A universal human desire, he said, is “the freedom to speak your mind and choose your leaders, the ability to access information and worship how you please.”
As the Obama administration sees it, China is indispensable to meeting crucial goals. The U.S. wants China’s help in persuading North Korea and Iran to forswear nuclear weapons, in stabilizing Afghanistan and in setting conditions for a more “balanced” world economy not dependent on American consumerism.
Obama hopes to create U.S. jobs by coaxing Asian nations to boost spending and expand imports. That’s a theme he will press during stops in Singapore and South Korea.
Sending a message back home, he reminded American listeners that they are invested in Asia’s success.
“So . . . I want everyone in America to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home,” Obama said. “This is where we engage in much of our commerce and buy many of our goods. And this is where we can export more of our own products and create jobs back home in the process.”
Obama devoted part of his speech to one of the thorniest issues in the region: North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. He said the country can choose between two possible paths.
Pursuit of nuclear weapons will only leave the regime isolated, he said. But a more compliant North Korea will find a host of new trading partners and friends, the president said.
“Working in tandem with our partners -- supported by direct diplomacy -- the United States is prepared to offer North Korea a different future. Instead of an isolation that has compounded the horrific repression of its own people, North Korea could have a future of international integration. Instead of gripping poverty, it could have a future of economic opportunity -- where trade and investment and tourism can offer the North Korean people the chance at a better life,” Obama said.
One Japanese analyst said Obama hit the right notes for audiences across Asia.
“President Obama covered most of the important points. . . . The speech itself was one that didn’t emphasize areas Japan and the U.S. were having difficulties resolving, out of respect for Japan,” said Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
But Sone was also looking for more indication of U.S. plans.
“He did emphasize how he is the first Pacific Rim president . . . and he understands Asia to a certain degree. So is President Obama going to respond to a diverse Asia in a wide range of ways, or will his response to Asia be in an across-the-board manner? That wasn’t clear.”
Special correspondent Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo contributed to this report.