President Obama listens to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during an April 2 meeting in the Oval Office. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday thanked Singapore for its military cooperation as the U.S. prepares to rotate ships through the prosperous city state to boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Obama met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the third Asian leader to visit the White House this year, as the president pursues closer ties with countries in the region in his second term.
Singapore is a close defense and economic partner of the U.S., and later this month, the U.S. will begin rotational deployments of Navy vessels there. That’s part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region as the U.S. disentangles itself from a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have extremely close military cooperation. And I want to thank Singapore for all the facilities that they provide that allow us to maintain our effective Pacific presence,” Obama told reporters.
Defense cuts at home and turmoil in the Middle East have raised doubts in Asia about the U.S. ability to sustain that strategic rebalance to the region. But Obama made his diplomatic priorities clear by traveling to Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand soon after his November re-election, and then by hosting the leaders of Japan and Brunei. South Korea’s new president will visit in May.
It was Lee Hsien Loong’s first Oval Office meeting in six years and comes as the U.S. pushes for completion by fall of a trans-Pacific free trade pact. Singapore is one of 11 countries taking part in the negotiations. The U.S. and Singapore already have a bilateral free trade pact, and Obama described the Southeast Asian state as an “outstanding” economic partner.
Lee said Singapore is very happy that the Obama administration has been putting greater emphasis on its relations with Asia, including on economic matters, and on its relations with China.
Lee is the eldest son of Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. He last visited the U.S. for a nuclear security summit in 2010. He is also addressing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, and will travel to New York City and meet later this week with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Underscoring the Obama administration’s efforts to sustain its Asian diplomacy, the foreign ministers of two U.S. treaty allies in the region, the Philippines and South Korea, were also in Washington Tuesday for meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry travels to Northeast Asia next week, amid concerns over North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and warnings that it plans to restart shuttered nuclear facilities.
On Tuesday, when he met Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Kerry also expressed deep U.S. concern about tensions in the South China Sea, where several Southeast Asian nations have been unnerved by assertive actions by China. Kerry called for the territorial disputes there worked out through arbitration.
In a statement after the meeting, Del Rosario said Kerry gave assurances the U.S. committed to supporting Philippine efforts “to settle the disputes peacefully and in accordance with the rule of law.”
In January, the Philippines notified China it was seeking arbitration in their territorial dispute under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. It wants China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea declared unlawful.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
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