Obama, in Asean summit speech, says US engagement with Asia will endure

US President Barack Obama speaks about US-Laos relations at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane on Sept 6, 2016.
US President Barack Obama speaks about US-Laos relations at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane on Sept 6, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

VIENTIANE - United States President Barack Obama has promised that his country's commitment to Asia will endure, as he vowed to push Congress to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) before his term ends.

Speaking in the Laotian capital of Vientiane on his last trip to Asia as US president, he acknowledged that a failure to follow through on the 12-nation trade pact would call into question the US "rebalance" towards Asia.

"America's interests in the Asia-Pacific is not new. It's not a passing fad. It reflects fundamental national interests," he said in the Laos national cultural hall on Tuesday (Sept 6) afternoon before about 1,000 people.

Mr Obama made the comments as part of a bilateral trip to Laos while attending this Thursday's East Asia Summit, an annual gathering of state leaders held after the Asean summit.

Mr Obama's foreign policy has been characterised by its "rebalance" to Asia, where the superpower tried to grow economic and strategic ties with regional countries while trying to dial down its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2009, he billed himself as "America's first Pacific president" and promised "a new era of engagement with the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect".

In February, he hosted a special standalone summit for Asean leaders in Sunnylands, California, where they reaffirmed key principles guiding Asean-US cooperation, including respect for a rules-based order.

Mr Obama, the first US president to visit Myanmar, earlier this year lifted a lethal arms embargo on Vietnam, its one-time enemy, and ramped up military aid to a Philippines trying to boost its maritime capabilities to assert its claims over contested territory in the South China Sea.

Parts of this important waterway are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

In some quarters, the "rebalance" has been interpreted as an attempt to contain the rise of China, which has been cementing its dominance in the region through investment, trade and aid, and also a steady military build-up in the South China Sea - the majority of which it claims as its territory.

With regards to China, Mr Obama said that while both countries continue to have "serious differences in important areas", both countries will continue to work together on areas of mutual interest.