HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama heads into a day of heavy diplomacy in his native Hawaii with some of the United States’ most important and complicated allies, the start of a nine-day tour of the crucial and growing Asia-Pacific region.
Obama, who arrived late Friday after flying from San Diego, was to meet Saturday on the sidelines of a U.S.-hosted economic summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
Trade was also at the top of the agenda as Obama was to meet with leaders from eight Asian nations that are the U.S. partners in an ambitious but not-yet-completed free trade deal the U.S. hopes will one day be the anchoring pact for the region.
That emerging pact and its potential payoff for U.S. jobs and business will allow Obama to cast his far-flung travels as crucial to U.S. voters with an election year approaching and concerns of domestic voters centered on the dragging economy. With Obama pledging to double U.S. exports, the White House hopes to show progress at the summit on the deal, the next trade focus for the administration following long-delayed approval of a free-trade agreement with South Korea.
Obama also was to meet with U.S. business leaders Saturday to highlight the importance for interests back home of the Asia-Pacific region. The 21 nations that make up the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum account for 44 percent of world trade, and American business leaders are working eagerly to boost ties with them.
“The trade that the U.S. does with the Asia Pacific supports millions of American jobs,” Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said ahead of Obama’s trip, laying out a theme certain to be heard from Obama’s advisers until the president returns to Washington Nov. 20. “The markets that are growing in the Asia Pacific are ones that we want to be competitive in going forward.”
Japan has indicated interest in joining the other eight nations negotiating with the U.S. on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though hurdles remain, and that is sure to be a topic when Obama has his first meeting with Noda, who took office in September.
In Hu and Medvedev, Obama encounters two leaders with whom he’s sought close relations despite fraught histories between the U.S. and those countries, with disagreements on human rights, territorial disputes, economics and other issues. For the president, the challenge is to maintain those ties while also pushing U.S. priorities.
It’s Obama’s first meeting with those leaders since release of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying for the first time that Iran is suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear arms.
For the U.S., the report offered significant support for some long-held suspicions and lent international credence to claims that Tehran isn’t solely interested in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday in Honolulu that Iran must respond soon to the findings.
U.S. officials have said the IAEA report is unlikely to persuade reluctant powers such as China and Russia to support tougher sanctions on the Iranian government. But Obama’s talks with Hu and Medvedev on that issue and others, including North Korea and China’s currency, which the U.S. believes China manipulates to the detriment of U.S. interests, were sure to be closely watched.
Throughout, Obama will be aiming to keep the focus on U.S. jobs, the interest for American voters far and above anything else. And it’s all happening on the president’s turf, his hometown of Honolulu, which the White House says he chose for the APEC summit to underscore his commitment to the U.S. being a key player in the Asia-Pacific.
Obama will be in Honolulu through Tuesday, when he leaves for Australia before ending his trip in Indonesia, the country where he spent several years as a boy. He will attend a security summit of Asian nations.