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Obama Begins Asia Tour In Japan


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama is in Japan today, that's his first stop on a trip through Asia that will go into next week. This visit will help define the role he would like to see the U.S. play in the Pacific region. NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us from Tokyo for the latest.

And, what, good morning, good evening.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Scott, there's a new government in Japan and it's indicated already of plans to be more assertive with the U.S. How does that fit into what President Obama is hoping for there?

HORSLEY: Well, the president said very explicitly after his meeting that he does consider Japan to be an equal partner in this relationship, not a junior partner. And that's something the new Japanese government has said. But there's no question this new government here creates some uncertainty. You know, the U.S. has decades of experience working with Japan's long-time ruling party, the LBP. And now, there's a new party in power, the DPJ and a new prime minister, and that's going to take some getting used to.

Still, the president and prime minister met for about 90 minutes today. And according to Prime Minister Hatoyama, it was very quickly, you know, Barack and Yukio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: So, they're on a first name basis. One of the friction points that had been identified going into this meeting was the U.S. military presence in Okinawa which has long been controversial with residents of that area. And the DPJ is generally thought of as being more sympathetic to those concerns than the more national oriented LBP had been. That did come up. Both sides said they want it resolved quickly. But White House officials said in advance that they didn't expect that to really be the dominant theme in today's talks.

MONTAGNE: What did turn out to be the dominant theme then in the talks?

HORSLEY: Well, the president wanted to thank Japan for its renewed commitment to Afghanistan. Japan is second only to the U.S. in financial support to Afghanistan. And just this week, Japan announced another major aide package for Afghanistan over the next five years. Japan is also a big contributor to Pakistan. In some ways, the Japanese prime minister is singing from President Obama's hymnal when he talks about giving more global engagement by Japan, using quote, unquote, "soft power."

Until now, Japan's voice has maybe been overshadowed a little bit by the United States' voice, but that's changing. And both sides see this visit as a chance to sort of make some adjustments in the alliance.

They also talked about North Korea. They talked about nuclear disarmament, climate change and of course, a little bit of talk about the global economy.

MONTAGNE: Right. Now, as he left for Asia, President Obama emphasized that he'd be talking about trade, especially about opening Asian markets to American exports, which will, of course, be good for the American economy. Where is trade likely to figure most in this trip?

HORSLEY: Yeah. The U.S. obviously would very much like to sell more goods to Asia and ease what is now a big trade imbalance with nations like Japan, like China. And I'm sure we will be hearing more calls throughout this trip, as we have from the Obama administration whenever there is one of these international get-togethers, to avoid protectionism.

But President Obama has been pulling different directions on trade, going back to the days of the campaign. There's a lot of skepticism in how own party and among Americans in general about just how free trade is working for American workers. And so administration has said it's not taking any immediate action on things like the free trade agreement with Korea, which has been gathering dust for a couple of years now. The administration says they have an obligation to work for free trade but we're not seeing any real concrete steps in that direction.

MONTAGNE: Okay. So just basically, what else is on the agenda for the rest of the president's trip?

HORSLEY: Well, China will be a central focus of this trip. Of course, China is the second biggest trading partner for the U.S. and its biggest foreign banker. The president will also be traveling to South Korea and talking more about North Korea. And then there's a big meeting in Singapore over the weekend with the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. This was a group set up two decades ago to prevent having sort of a boundary line down the middle of the Pacific, dividing the United States from Asia, and aides have said Mr. Obama, who of course was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, has a very personal interest in shoring up trans-Pacific ties.

MONTAGNE: Scott, thanks very much. NPRs Scott Horsley speaking with us from the press room in Tokyo, traveling with the president on his Asian trip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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