TOKYO — President Barack Obama declared Saturday that an era of American disengagement in the globe's fastest-growing region is over and warned that the U.S. and its Asian partners "will not be cowed" by North Korea's continued defiance over its nuclear weapons and other provocations.
Obama also said a robust China should be welcomed, not feared, as a powerful partner on urgent challenges. Addressing Americans' worries about the economic and security threat from China's rising might and Asians' skepticism about U.S leadership, the president said: "We welcome China's efforts to play a greater role on the world stage, a role in which their growing economy is joined by growing responsibility."
In a 40-minute speech, Obama offered incentives for North Korea to abandon the nuclear weapons it is believed to already have and the production program it continues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. He outlined a possible future of economic opportunity and greater global greater respect, saying, "this respect cannot be earned through belligerence."
"It should be clear where that path leads," Obama said. "We will continue to send a clear message through our actions, and not just our words: North Korea's refusal to meet its international obligations will lead only to less security, not more."
More broadly, the president's address to 1,500 prominent Japanese in a soaring downtown Tokyo concert hall was intended to showcase a United States that, under Obama's leadership, seeks deeper engagement in Asia. It was the fifth major foreign address of his 10-month presidency. He reached out to locals through several personal notes that delighted his audience, including calling himself "America's first Pacific president," referring to his boyhood time in Indonesia and travels in Asia, and saluting the residents of Obama, Japan.
Acknowledging Asia's growing power and the perceptions here of America's parallel decline, Obama aides had said the chief aim for his eight-day trip through Asia wasn't so much to bring home specific "deliverables" but to convincingly press the point that the U.S. very much is in the Asian game.
Obama said Washington would work hard to strengthen alliances in Asia, such as with Japan and South Korea, build on newer ones with nations like China and Indonesia, and increase its participation with a burgeoning alphabet soup of Asian multilateral organizations. The involvement, the president said, is not just academic for Americans. It affects everyday, top-priority issues such as jobs, a cleaner environment and preventing dangerous weapons proliferation, he said.
"I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home," Obama said. "The fortunes of America and the Asia Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before."
Obama also sounded free-trade notes sure to be welcome in Asia, where nations are rapidly seeking agreements with each other.
He said the U.S. would seek to join a trans-Pacific free-trade area, formed in 2006 between Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei. Vietnam and Australia are also said to be keen to join it.
The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership is seen as a starting point for a possible regional free trade area comprising 21 countries of Asia-Pacific. Obama's announcement gives the proposal a boost.
On China, Obama called for harnessing China's clout to make progress on shared interests like weapons proliferation, a more solid global economy and climate agreements.
"In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another," he said.
He also said the United States "will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear." And yet, clearly hoping to avoid overly irritating Beijing, Obama named none of the many and serious specific human rights concerns with respect to China, including Tibet, where authorities have suppressed religious freedom and national aspirations. Except for the brutal regime in Myanmar, he spoke only generally about human rights and democratic values.
"Indigenous cultures and economic growth have not been stymied by respect for human rights, they have been strengthened by it," the president said. "Supporting human rights provides lasting security that cannot be purchased in any other way."
Obama's remarks came near the start of a trip presenting him with risks at every stop.
In Japan, the relationship with the U.S. is on newly delicate footing after a change in leadership in Tokyo that has the Japanese moving toward greater independence from Washington and closer ties with the rest of Asia. Saturday night, Obama arrives in Singapore, where he is to join a larger meeting that includes the leader of a brutal regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma. He is the first U.S. president to make such close contact.
Then he flies to China, where relations with the U.S. are bedeviled by Beijing's global ambitions, as well as numerous issues including trade, currency, Taiwan, human rights and climate change. Obama ends his trip on an easier note in South Korea, an increasingly reliable U.S. ally.
Obama made Tokyo the venue for his speech, a symbolically important choice that displayed respect for Japan's long history as the U.S.' chief ally in Asia and one of the region's foremost democracies.
In an effort to move relations between the world's two largest economies toward more settled footing, Obama laid on the compliments. He noted that Japan's leader was the first foreign dignitary to come to the Oval Office after he assumed the presidency and that Japan also was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first stop on her first overseas trip
"Our efforts in the Asia Pacific will be rooted, in no small measure, through an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan," Obama said.
After his speech, Obama had lunch with Japan's Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, bowing deeply as they welcomed him to the graceful grounds of the Imperial Palace in the heart of the bustling city.
Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler and Vijay Joshi contributed to this report.