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Obama Says U.S. Will Play Greater Role In Asia

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech at Suntory Hall in Tokyo

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech at Suntory Hall in Tokyo

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged greater U.S. engagement in Asia in a major speech today in Tokyo.

In a 30-minute speech to 1,500 Japanese at the start of his eight-day Asian tour, Obama said his country doesn't fear the rise of China in the 21st century, saying its economic growth doesn't have to mean a decline for the United States.

As a result, he said, Washington welcomes China's ascendancy.

But the U.S. leader says China's growth must come with a sense of responsibility.

"Of course, we will not agree on every issue, and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear -- and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people," Obama said.

"Because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor."

Obama didn't specify all the concerns that Washington has long had with Beijing, including Tibet, where Buddhism is suppressed and the Dalai Lama is forced to live in exile.

North Korea

Obama also spoke of North Korea and its nuclear weapons. He criticized Pyongyang for preferring provocation to diplomacy, despite the efforts of his own country and four of North Korea's neighbors -- China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea -- to join in the six-party talks in an effort to persuade the north to give up the program.

Already, he said, the international community has isolated North Korea with devastating sanctions. But Obama offered another option: economic opportunity that he said could raise the country and its people out of crushing poverty and bring them greater security.

To achieve this, Obama said that North Korea should "return to the six-party talks," uphold previous commitments, including a return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and "the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

For Asia as a whole, Obama proposed a fresh approach to trade with the United States. For years, he said, Asian entrepreneurs made goods that Americans bought. But with every economic downturn, he noted -- especially the current recession -- Americans abruptly stop buying, at a great cost to Asian manufacturers.

Americans now know that they need to save more and consume less -- and this means Asian countries must consume more. And, Obama said, it will be in their interest.

"For Asia, striking this better balance will provide an opportunity for workers and consumers to enjoy higher standards of living that their remarkable increases in productivity have made possible," Obama said.

"It will allow for greater investments in housing and infrastructure and the service sector. And a more balanced global economy will lead to prosperity that reaches further and deeper."

This way, Obama said, the peoples of both sides of the Pacific Ocean can enjoy the fruits of economies that are growing again. But he said that economic growth isn't enough if it isn't environmentally sustainable.

Climate Change

Obama told the Japanese that his administration is hard at work to combat global climate change, from investing in alternative energy to taking part in international climate negotiations, such as next month's Copenhagen Climate Summit.

After Tokyo, Obama is in Singapore for a meeting of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Among the leaders there will be Thein Sein, Burma's prime minister and a member of the ruling junta.

Obama will be the first U.S. president to be at a meeting with a Burmese leader since the military takeover of 1962.

Next Obama will go to Beijing to discuss trade, currency issues, and human rights, among other topics. He'll end his Asian tour in South Korea.