Obama Completes Asia Trip Shadowed by China, Russia

President Barack Obama, in the final hours of his week-long visit to the Asia-Pacific region, emphasized a U.S. bond with the Philippines dating back to World War Two a day after the signing of a new defense pact.

“Our commitment to the Philippines is iron clad,” Obama, flanked by U.S. and Filipino soldiers, said in remarks at Fort Bonifacio in Manila. “Deepening our alliance is part of our broader vision for the Asia-Pacific.”

With veterans from battles including Bataan and Corregidor sitting in the audience at Fort Bonifacio, Obama said his visit served to “reaffirm the enduring alliance” between the two countries. Obama said he saw the spirit of World War Two veterans in the current soldiers from both nations.

“We’ll train and exercise together more to bring our militaries even closer together,” Obama said, marking the last events of a trip designed to solidify ties with allies as part of the U.S.’s “rebalancing” to the region.

The remarks were followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery, which contains the largest number of U.S. military dead from World War Two outside of the U.S. Obama had a moment of silence at a red, white and blue wreath before a 21-gun salute and playing of Taps.

The Asia trip, which took in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia before Obama arrived yesterday in the Philippines, has been one filled with state dinners and bilateral meetings, focused on reassuring the region of U.S. support and intentions, particularly as China continues to rise as an economic and military power.

‘Peaceful Rise’

Obama and his top aides have pushed back on the idea that the trip is about containing or countering China. Obama, in a joint press conference yesterday with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, said the U.S. welcomes “China’s peaceful rise.”

There is little doubt, however, that actions coming from the government in Beijing have been a central focus of each stop, particularly as tensions have risen over maritime disagreements in the region.

While in Manila, Obama touted a 10-year defense cooperation agreement signed with the Philippines, increasing the U.S. presence in the country at a time it is embroiled in disputes with China over islands and shoals in the South China Sea.

During his first stop of the trip in Tokyo, he became the most senior U.S. official to emphasize that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan extends to provocations over disputed islands in the East China Sea, where tensions have escalated since China imposed an air defense identification zone in November.

Defense Zone

Obama even flew through China’s air zone with Air Force One after filing only a routine flight plan.

Still, throughout the trip he emphasized the need to work with China, particularly in the case of North Korea, where administration officials point to leaders in Beijing as a key component of any strategy to de-escalate the situation in a country that has grown increasingly belligerent under leader Kim Jong Un.

On the economic side, at each stop Obama pushed for new investment in the U.S., lobbying top officials from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. while in Seoul and overseeing the signing of more than $1.8 billion in deals between U.S. companies including General Electric Co. and MetLife Inc. and Malaysian counterparts while in Kuala Lumpur.

Electric Buses

Before leaving the Philippines Obama inspected a prototype of the Comet, an electric city bus by Vancouver, Washington-based Pangea Motors. Starting next month in Manila, 15,000 Comets will replace 30,000 jeepneys, or minibuses, through a venture by U.S. and Filipino investors.

The central economic component of the trip -- the talks on a 12-nation trade pact -- was underscored as Obama, accompanied by Trade Representative Michael Froman, pushed negotiations with participants Japan and Malaysia, while encouraging future involvement in the pact by South Korea and the Philippines.

Obama fell short of striking a bilateral deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while in Tokyo, though administration officials had indicated in the lead up to the trip that an agreement was not expected. Instead, officials focused on what they called a “breakthrough” on market access issues -- something negotiators on both sides will use to frame talks on agriculture and automobiles, key sticking points to an agreement.

Ukraine Crisis

Even as the trade pact faced criticism from Democrats back in the U.S. and protests in each country, Obama and his counterparts agreed to keep pushing forward on the deal. Administration officials say there is no concrete timeline for completion, though top officials will meet again in May.

Throughout the trip, Obama remained tailed by another international crisis taking some of the focus off his administration’s push in the region. At each stop, Obama was pressed by reporters about Ukraine, where the standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin grew more tense as the week went along.

Obama ended up using his final press conference of the trip to announce new sanctions on individuals and companies aligned with the Russian leader.

Still, Obama and his top aides say the rebalance is both real and on track, something he sought to underscore by answering his critics unprompted during a townhall in Kuala Lumpur with more than 500 youth leaders from the region.

“Let me be clear about this, because some people have wondered whether because of what happens in Ukraine or what happens in the Middle East, whether this will sideline our strategy -- it has not,” Obama said at the start of an hour-long question-and-answer session. “We are focused and we’re going to follow through on our interest in promoting a strong U.S.-Asia relationship.”

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