President Obama made good on his promise to engage more directly with Southeast Asia on Sunday at the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN summit in Singapore, underscoring the Administration's desire to reassert itself in a region where China's economic and political clout has grown rapidly in recent years. Obama told his ASEAN hosts that the group is an "organization of global importance." U.S. companies, including General Electric (GE), Ford Motor (F) and ExxonMobil (XOM), have invested more than $153 billion in the region, and U.S.-ASEAN trade was $178 billion last year. The meeting also marked the first time a U.S. President has met with the leader of the military-installed government in Myanmar in many decades. Obama, whose Administration has pursued a policy of engagement rather than isolation with the ruling junta, urged Prime Minister Thein Sein to release Nobel laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest as well as other political prisoners, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. Although a joint statement made no mention of Suu Kyi, it said the ASEAN leaders "welcomed the policy of the United States to engage with the government of Myanmar." "exceeded expectations"The summit's leaders also discussed terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, education, renewable energy, and climate change. They also agreed to regular annual summit meetings—proof that the gathering "exceeded expectations and especially had a very, very positive spirit," said Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu, who attended the session with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The reaction from the U.S. side was equally effusive. "They were obviously very thrilled that all 10 leaders were able to be there and talk to the President," said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. If the mood emerging from the U.S.-ASEAN summit was ebullient, the joint statement by leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting earlier on Sunday struck a more somber tone, stressing the fragility of the economic recovery and the need to find a new paradigm for more balanced global growth. It also said its members oppose all forms of protectionism and urged a successful conclusion of the Doha round of WTO talks in 2010. But the communiqué did not make reference to exchange-rate policies, nor did it include any specific targets for reduction of carbon emissions, both of which had been included in earlier drafts. The issue of more flexible, market-based exchange rates is of particular concern to many Southeast Asian countries that have been forced to prevent their currencies from strengthening and choking exports because China has kept the yuan pegged to the dollar for nearly a year and a half. That issue will be very near the top of the agenda during Obama's visit to China that begins on Monday. However, China's neighbors have also benefited from its massive $586 billion stimulus package that helped catapult economic growth to 8.9% in the third quarter and put the country on track to achieve 8.4% growth this year, according to the World Bank. "We have felt positive effects of the stimulus from China in our trade numbers and our export numbers," says Indonesia's Pangestu. "When you talk about rebalancing growth, it's not just about the U.S. and China but within Asia between China and the rest of Asia."
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