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Obama's Asia Trip Reiterates Strategic Priority


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Steve Inskeep.

After attending the annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders, President Obama is winging his way home this morning. And tomorrow, he'll issue the traditional Thanksgiving turkey pardon. Then after the holiday it's back to budget talks with congressional leaders deciding what else might be spared, and what government programs or tax breaks might feel the knife.

The White House insists domestic budget concerns won't affect U.S. investment in Asia, which was the point of the president's three-nation tour this week. Some in the region are not so sure.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama was visiting the Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Thailand this week, admiring a giant statue of a reclining Buddha, when a monk in orange robes appeared and told the president, good luck with the fiscal cliff. Even on the far side of the world, Washington's budget talks are hard to escape.

The U.S. budget deficit and its slow-growing economy have led some to question whether the administration can deliver on its promise to play a larger role in Asia's affairs.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon says those fears are groundless.

TOM DONILON: I know there have been some observers in the region and in the United States, who have asked whether our efforts in Asia are sustainable over the long term. When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.

HORSLEY: And that is what Mr. Obama has been saying, again and again, this week. He may be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cambodia. But Mr. Obama suggests he won't be the last American leader to focus on this fast-growing part of the world.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is a Pacific nation and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West. And as our economy recovers, this is where we believe we'll find enormous growth.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama told an audience in Myanmar, also known as Burma, that the countries of Southeast Asia are on the move; with growing economies, more democratic governments, and diverse populations drawn from every race and religion.

OBAMA: This is what the 21st century should look like, if we have the courage to put aside our differences and move forward with a sense of mutual interest and mutual respect.

HORSLEY: Differences were on display this week when the leaders of Southeast Asian nations met here in Phnom Penh. One flash point is the South China Sea, which is rich in natural resources and a key shipping route. China has grown more aggressive in staking territorial claims to the sea, putting it at odds with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and others. The U.S. doesn't take sides in those territorial disputes.

But Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says the White House believes they should be worked out through consultation with a broad range of international players.

BEN RHODES: The U.S. believes that any solution has to preserve the free flow of commerce that is important, not just to the countries in this region but to the world. The U.S. is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but we have significant interests there, given its role in the global economy.

HORSLEY: Many Asian countries want the U.S. to play a larger role here as a counterweight to China's growing power. The administration has promised to expand the U.S. military presence in Asia. And White House officials say that won't change, even as the defense budget is scaled back.

National Security Advisor Donilon says Mr. Obama also intends to stay actively involved in diplomatic efforts in the region, even as today's long flight home serves as a reminder of just how time consuming these Asian summit meetings can be.

DONILON: It requires a yearly commitment of quite a bit of the president's time, frankly, to travel to Asia for this. And as you can imagine, when you're talking about the president's time, which is the most precious resource in the White House, there's going to be a debate about whether or not this is worth the candle. And we reached this decision in this way: You are either all in or you're not, with respect to this strategy. And the United States is all in.

HORSLEY: Donilon says Asia will remain a strategic priority for the Administration. We're under no illusions, he says. This is a long-term project.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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