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White House makes economics focus of Asia trip

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DARLENE SUPERVILLE | April 18, 2014 05:42 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is focusing President Barack Obama's upcoming Asia-Pacific trip on the economic benefits of closer ties to the region, but regional security concerns are likely to be pushed higher on the president's agenda because of the tense situation between Russia and Ukraine.

Japan and South Korea, two of the four countries Obama will visit next week, are eyeing the fluid developments in Eastern Europe through the lens of their own sea and air disputes with China, and North Korean provocations. The leaders of Japan and South Korea, both close U.S. allies, will want Obama's reassurance that the U.S. will back them up.

Obama also doesn't have much to offer his hosts and he is not expected to make any major announcements while traveling.

That's partly because negotiations continue indefinitely on a Pacific-wide, free-trade deal among the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Japan. Disputes over access to markets, agriculture and automobiles have become sticking points in talks between the U.S. and Japan, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on Friday.

The administration long had wanted those talks to conclude by the end of last year.

"The president's trip is an important opportunity to underscore our continued focus on the Asia-Pacific region," Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said Friday. "President Obama has pursued a strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, given its stature as the world's largest emerging region."

Half of all growth outside the United States over the next five years is expected to come from Asia, Rice said, adding that the region also includes several important U.S. allies, developing democracies and emerging powers.

"So we increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it's accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values," Rice said.

Obama's eight-day trip, which begins Tuesday, makes up for a visit that was planned for last fall but ultimately was canceled because Obama would have had to leave the country during the partial shutdown of the U.S. government that October. The cancellation raised fresh doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region.

The first stop is Japan, followed by South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Japan and Malaysia are welcoming Obama on official state visits that will include fancy dinners as well as time with the emperor of Japan and Malaysia's king.

Obama will be the first president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon B. Johnson went there in October 1966.

En route to Japan, Obama has scheduled a stop in Oso, Wash., to survey damage from a massive mudslide last month that killed 39 people. Obama also plans to meet with victims, emergency responders and recovery workers.

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