HONOLULU (AP) – Courting help from Asian powers, President Barack Obama on Saturday sought to improve the beleaguered American jobs outlook with an eye toward next year’s election and contain deepening nuclear worries over Iran on a day of heavy diplomacy.
On the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific economic summit, Obama was to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The timing for Obama is significant, particularly with Russia and China, as the United States tries to increase world pressure on Iran amid a fresh U.N. atomic agency report that Iran is working secretly on a nuclear weapon.
Obama is the host of the APEC gathering, a non-binding forum that draws 21 nations from across a vast Asia-Pacific region — one that the U.S. president sees as vital toward expanding American trade and creating jobs. Obama chose to host the event in his home state of Hawaii to underscore his ties and economic commitment to the Pacific region, although security threats may well dominate his private meetings.
Ahead of Obama’s arrival on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the Pacific Rim summit that Iran has a history of deception over its nuclear intentions and must respond to the International Atomic Energy Agency report “in the coming days.” Iran dismisses the allegation about its nuclear program and says its activities are meant to be used only for energy or research.
For the summit, trade topped the agenda. Leaders were poised to announce the framework of a deal — with many details still to be negotiated in months to come — for a new free trade zone encompassing the United States and eight nations. Japan has signaled it is interested in joining the negotiations, and the Obama administration hopes other nations will be wooed as well.
That emerging pact and its potential payoff for U.S. jobs and business will allow Obama to cast his far-flung travels as crucial to American voters with an election year approaching and concerns of domestic voters centered on the dragging economy. Obama also was to meet with U.S. business leaders Saturday to highlight the importance for interests back home of the Asia-Pacific region.
“The trade that the U.S. does with the Asia Pacific supports millions of American jobs,” Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser, said ahead of Obama’s trip, laying out a theme certain to be heard from Obama’s advisers until the president returns to Washington Nov. 20. “The markets that are growing in the Asia Pacific are ones that we want to be competitive in going forward.”
Japan’s interest in joining the trade bloc will be a central topic for Obama and Noda.
With Hu and Medvedev, Obama encounters two leaders with whom he’s sought close relations despite fraught histories between the U.S. and those countries, with disagreements on human rights, territorial disputes, economics and other issues. For the president, the challenge is to maintain those ties while also pushing U.S. priorities.
It will be Obama’s first meetings with those leaders since release of a report by the atomic agency saying for the first time that Iran is suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose is the development of nuclear arms.
For the U.S., the report offered significant support for some long-held suspicions and lent international credence to claims that Tehran isn’t solely interested in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes.
U.S. officials have said the IAEA report is unlikely to persuade reluctant powers such as China and Russia to support tougher sanctions on the Iranian government. But Obama’s talks with Hu and Medvedev on that issue and others, including the North Korea nuclear threat, and China’s currency, which the U.S. believes China manipulates to the detriment of U.S. interests, were sure to be closely watched.
Obama will be in Honolulu through Tuesday, when he leaves for Australia before ending his trip in Indonesia, the country where he spent several years as a boy. He will attend a security summit of Asian nations.