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Sustained Leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. OBAMA..Mr. President, as President Bush arrives in Sydney to take part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, APEC, leaders meeting, it is appropriate to take stock of America's role in the Asia-Pacific region.

America's future prosperity and security is directly tied to Asia. The region contains the world's fastest growing major economies, largest militaries, largest energy consumers and importers, and biggest contributors to global climate change. Some of the most critical items on our international agenda--such as ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, developing ties to moderate Muslim states, building a sound global economy, achieving energy security, combating climate change, and responding to pandemic disease--are impossible to achieve without robust U.S. partnerships and sustained engagement in Asia.

But despite the region's obvious importance, we have lost ground over the past seven years. The war in Iraq that should never have been authorized or waged has been an enormous distraction from the fight against al-Qaida, which has reconstituted itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition to the enormous costs in lives and resources, the war has also set back our standing and leadership in the world, and made it far more difficult for America to lead on critical issues. In Asia, a region that both wants and expects United States' leadership, this inattention has led to a decline in U.S. prestige and influence and has placed our national security interests in jeopardy.

While America has been increasingly absent in Asia, China has promoted itself as an alternative to U.S. leadership. And with fundamental shifts in Asia's security and economy underway--a rising China, emerging India, a Japan seeking to become a more ``normal'' and assertive nation, and North Korea and South Korea presenting dangers and opportunities the United States cannot afford to stay on the sidelines.

U.S. engagement is vital to maintaining the balance, and therefore peace, among potentially competing powers. In particular, the rise of China requires a clear-sighted view of our interests. A policy that seeks cooperation with China on security, economic, energy and environmental issues, maintains our military strength in the western Pacific, and strengthens our ability to compete must be a foundation of any successful policy.

While APEC may be primarily an economic forum, it also offers the opportunity to engage all the region's leaders in a single setting--and to further our agenda across the range of key challenges. Too often, the U.S. has missed this opportunity.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions already have had a profound impact on the region, and we must work to achieve a complete and verifiable elimination of all the DPRK's nuclear weapons capabilities and programs. I welcome the recent statement that North Korea will declare and disable its nuclear programs by the end of the year. For far too long, the administration's disdain for diplomacy allowed the threat from North Korea to grow. While clearly the best time to negotiate with North Korea would have been before it tested a nuclear weapon, we must now verify North Korean compliance with their commitments. This will demand principled, aggressive, direct and sustained American diplomacy and leadership in the region.

To build support against terrorists and prevail in the long-term battle against violent extremism, the U.S. must work closely with Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, to develop effective strategies that both prevent acts of terrorism and root out al-Qaida elements. In addition to cooperative military, intelligence, and law enforcement efforts, this will require recognition that our relationships in the region are more complex and multidimensional than a narrow approach to counterterrorism. We should use the opportunity of the APEC forum to explore new initiatives to increase political, diplomatic, economic, educational, and cultural engagement.

In terms of our shared prosperity, nowhere is America's sustained leadership more important in ensuring that the global economy remains vibrant. Together the economies of the APEC region account for over half the world's output and trade. It is essential that Asian countries work with us to ensure balanced growth and openness of the global trading system. This means shifting away from their traditional dependence on export-led growth and weak currencies toward stronger consumption at home and greater absorption of imports. The United States should negotiate only ``gold standard'' agreements with our Asian trading partners that stimulate growth and jobs and contain binding labor and environmental standards and intellectual property protections.

With the nations of East Asia working together through ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum, APEC, the East Asia Summit and other regional arrangements, Asia is moving ahead--with or without us--to create a new regional architecture. Our interests demand that we re-engage to ensure trans-Pacific linkages are relevant and strong. That means developing new arrangements to meet new and rising challenges and transnational threats that stem from globalization--especially in the areas of pandemic disease, climate change, and energy security. The latest pandemic, an unidentified, highly contagious virus affecting pigs, is sweeping Asia. We must ensure that China and other affected countries cooperate in research and containing this and future outbreaks of disease. We should use the opportunity of APEC to further the dialogue about the growing problem of pandemics.

On climate change and energy, the U.S. and Asia face many of the same challenges, and we ought to capitalize on those areas where our interests intersect. We have a mutual interest, for instance, in assuring adequate oil supplies, preventing disruptions in oil and gas exporting states and in the sea lanes, promoting greater efficiency, developing and expanding clean sources of energy, coordinating build-up and release of strategic stockpiles to prevent price spikes during supply emergencies, and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The time is ripe for U.S. leadership on a serious and comprehensive energy and climate initiative in Asia that would ramp-up the development and deployment of efficiency-related technologies, establish an adequate research and development fund for carbon sequestration and related technologies, increase opportunities for U.S. businesses to capture a share of the region's burgeoning clean energy market, and create a forum to address supply security-related concerns.

We will not be able to fight global climate change effectively unless the United States is able to lead the world toward a post-Kyoto Protocol framework that includes binding limits on the large projected growth in greenhouse gas emissions from China, India, and other Asian countries. The Bush administration's prolonged refusal to confront the challenges of climate change at home has robbed the United States of its ability to lead effectively in such efforts abroad. We should use the opportunity of APEC to discuss a new, comprehensive energy initiative in Asia to address the twin challenges of energy security and climate change.

The U.S. also should work with its Asian partners to strengthen democracy. Nowhere is the need for building consensus more pressing than in Burma. Peaceful pro-democracy activists continue to put their lives on the line for freedom, and democratic nations should stand in solidarity with them. U.S. leadership is vital to any regional effort to press the military junta to achieve national reconciliation.

The U.S. must resume an active leadership role in Asia. We cannot sit on the sidelines. We have too much at stake in Asia, in terms of our prosperity, security, energy, and health. If we are to protect and advance these interests, America must be a reliable and engaged partner. It is good that President Bush is traveling to Sydney for APEC, and I know we all wish him success at this important summit. But the time has long since passed to pursue a new path that reflects the importance of Asia to our national interests and enables the United States to play a greater and appropriate leadership role in the region. We cannot afford any more missed opportunities.


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