TOKYO – Billing himself America's first "Pacific president", Barack Obama said the United States did not seek to "contain" China and promised a full US role in charting Asia's future.
In a major speech on the second day of his debut tour of the region, Obama repeatedly challenged regional leaders to wean themselves off lucrative US export markets to pursue "balanced" and sustainable economic growth.
Drawing on his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, and with a characteristic call for a new era of engagement, Obama also said Washington's commitment to the region's security was "unshakeable.'
From the stage of the Suntory concert hall in Tokyo on Saturday, Obama said he knew that many in his 1,500 strong audience wondered how Washington felt about China's rise, which some observers believe has come at America's expense.
"The United States does not seek to contain China, nor does a deeper relationship with China mean a weakening of our bilateral alliances," Obama said. "On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations."
Though speaking warmly of future ties with Beijing, a day ahead of his first visit to the region,
Many Asian observers believe that the US immersion in bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had forced it to take its eye off dynamic Asia, leaving an opening for China to seize a more powerful regional role.
"Even as American troops are engaged in two wars around the world, our commitment to Japan?s security and to Asian security is unshakeable," Obama said, against a backdrop of US and Japanese flags.
"It can be seen in our deployments throughout the region -- above all, through our young men and women in uniform."
Obama again called on North Korea to return to six-party talks on ending its nuclear program, but warned Washington would not be "cowed" by threats from Pyongyang, following its detonation of a nuclear device earlier this year.
As he pursues a tentative and groundbreaking engagement strategy with US foe Myanmar, Obama also called on the junta to fully release democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi -- though he stumbled over her name -- and political prisoners in response to US outreach.
Turning to the economy, just before heading to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore, Obama called on Asian economies to live up to G20 pledges to support balanced economic growth after the worst global recession in decades.
"We must strengthen our economic recovery, and pursue growth that is both balanced and sustained," said Obama.
"Now that we are on the brink of economic recovery, we must also ensure that it can be sustained," he said.
"We simply cannot return to the same cycles of boom and bust that led us into a global recession. We cannot follow the same policies that led to such imbalanced growth."
With an eye on multiple political challenges back home, including crushing 10 percent unemployment, Obama also told Americans that Asia plays a vital role in their economic security.
Obama arrived in Tokyo on Friday and met Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, lauding the US-Japan alliance and signalling flexibility on the thorny issue of the relocation of a US military base on the island of Okinawa.
Obama will fly on from Singapore to Shanghai Sunday on his debut visit to China, and then moves to Beijing to meet President Hu Jintao.
He wraps up his visit in South Korea next week.