President Barack Obama vigorously defended his commitment to strengthening U.S. ties with the Asia Pacific, arguing Saturday that while a flurry of crises elsewhere in the world have demanded his attention, those matters have not weakened his dedication to this fast-growing region.
"There are times when people have been skeptical of this rebalance, they're wondering whether America has the staying power to sustain it," Obama said during remarks in Brisbane, Australia, where he was attending the Group of 20 economic summit of developed and developing nations. "I'm here to say that American leadership in the Asia Pacific will always be a fundamental focus of my foreign policy."
Obama has long faced questions about his commitment to putting the Asia Pacific at the center of his foreign policy, an effort he sees as a core part of his presidential legacy. Politically weakened in the U.S. as he enters his final two years in office, Obama arrived in the region this week also facing skepticism about whether he has the power to follow through on his pledges.
During a speech at the University of Queensland, the president argued that challenges around the world often have the effect of deepening ties between the U.S. and the Asia Pacific rather than creating divides. He singled out the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, noting that 38 Australians were killed when Moscow-backed rebels shot down a commercial airliner.
"As your ally and friend, America shares the grief of these Australian families and we share the determination of your nation for justice and accountability," he said.
Obama devoted a significant portion of his remarks to addressing the complex relationship between the U.S. and China, his first stop on a weeklong tour of the region that also included a visit to Myanmar. Given its size and rapid growth, Obama said China, too, will inevitably play a critical role in the future of the Asia Pacific.
"The question is what kind of role will it play," he said. He said that while the U.S. welcomes the rise of a peaceful and responsible China, the Asian power must "adhere to the same rules as other nations."
The president's tone toward China was noticeably tougher during his remarks in Australia than during his three days in Beijing, where he and President Xi Jinping sought to emphasize their areas of agreement. Obama's shift in emphasis reflects the concern among other nations in the region about China's increasing aggression, particularly in its territorial disputes with neighbors.
That's expected to be a major focus of Obama's meeting Sunday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott. China has long been skeptical of the relationship between the three countries, seeing their alliance as an effort to counter its rise.
The president singled out the territorial disputes, as well as North Korea's rogue nuclear program, as dangerous threats that could determine whether the Asia Pacific's future is defined by "conflict or cooperation."
"Any effective security order for Asia must be based not on spheres of influence, or coercion or intimidation where big nations bully the small but on alliances for mutual security, international law and norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes," Obama said.
North Korea's nuclear provocations have continued to be a vexing problem for Obama. International negotiations with the reclusive government in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang broke down at the start of his administration and there have been no serious signs that talks will resume in the near future.
The day before Obama departed for China, North Korea unexpectedly released two Americans it had detained, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. The president had secretly dispatched James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, to Pyongyang to negotiate their release.
However, Obama has shut down any speculation that the surprise overture from North Korea could be a precursor to negotiations on broader issues. He said the U.S. needs more than "small gestures" from North Korea before reopening those efforts.
Following his remarks, Obama headed into meetings on global growth with G20 leaders. He was due back in Washington Sunday night after a trip that he said had spanned 15,000 miles, as well as several time zones.
"I have no idea what time it is right now," he joked.