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Obama's U.N. visit includes strong outreach to Asia

President Barack Obama is pleading for "a new era of engagement" on world problems, telling the United Nations the United States shouldn't pursue a go-it-alone stance. It is his first speech to world leaders at the U.N. Video by AP

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 10:57 AM

UNITED NATIONS - Look over President Obama's agenda for his three-day visit here during the annual U.N. General Assembly, and it's clear what part of the world is most on his mind.

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There were bilateral meetings Thursday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. On Friday, Obama will host 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the first time such a meeting has been held in the United States.

The reason? After years of focusing U.S. time and attention on the Middle East, the Obama administration is seeking to reorient its foreign policy toward Asia, largely as a way to ensure domestic economic growth in the decades ahead.

"We want to be unsubtle about this," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

"If you look at the focus of the U.S. in the world when we took office, we felt it was lopsided," Rhodes continued. "And, frankly, Asia's where the action is."

Obama's Asia-heavy agenda here is just the visible expression of an overall shift in geographic priority that has been underway for months. Obama called himself "America's first Pacific president" during his visit to China, Japan and South Korea last year, and he is living up to his biography in terms of interest.

Behind the emphasis on Asia is Obama's longer-term concern over how the American economy, still dizzy from the burst credit bubble, will grow in the coming decades.

The administration also wants a role in Asia's security and economic "architecture," the multilateral organizations evolving with the rising ambitions of several Asian nations.

Obama has warned the world that U.S. consumers can no longer power the global economy, and in his view, Asia's expanding consumer market represents a prosperous future for American exports. Hence his constant prodding of China to allow its currency to appreciate, perhaps making American goods more affordable to Chinese consumers.

"I think it's going to be very important for us to have frank discussions and continue to do more work cooperatively in order to achieve the type of balance and sustained economic growth that is so important," Obama said before his meeting with Wen, who oversees the Chinese economy.

Jeff Bader, senior director for Asia affairs at the National Security Council, said Wen "did reiterate Chinese intention to proceed, to continue with reform of their exchange-rate mechanism."

"Beyond that, I'd rather let the Chinese speak for themselves," he said.

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