Biden: Asia’s growth a chance to bend history

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Friday, December 6, 2013

SEOUL, South Korea -- Invoking the chance to remake the world, Vice President Joe Biden pledged Friday that the US will play a leading role in creating a new century of prosperity and security in Asia. But he warned that without trust and common ground-rules, growing tensions in the region could threaten that collective goal.

At an elite university in South Korea, Biden pushed back against those who doubt America's resolve to expands its footprint in Asia — a central aspiration for Biden and President Barack Obama that has been obscured in recent years by an array of distractions at home and abroad.

"This is one of those inflection points in history," Biden said, as he neared the end of a weeklong trip to Asia aimed at demonstrating that resolve. "We actually have a chance — a chance — to bend history just slightly."

In open, transparent societies lie growth, and in growth lies peace, Biden said, laying out a broad vision for a US-Asia bond in which close cooperation coexists with intense competition. Tracing the arc of South Korea's evolution since the end of the Korean War, Biden said cynics who question America's staying power need look only at South Korea, where nearly 30,000 US troops are still stationed, or to the Philippines, where the US and others are mounting a show of humanitarian support following a devastating typhoon.

"We can make even greater progress together in the next 60 years if we're wise, trust one another and are willing to make some sacrifices, shaping a peace and prosperous pacific region," Biden said.

To that end, Biden called on Asian countries to open their economies, drop trade barriers, create opportunities for women and cooperate on environmental protection. He called for the region to get on board with a single set of rules to govern relations between nations in a region where many of the most powerful nations are engaged in bitter feuds.

"With this growth have come new tensions, above and beyond the enduring threats that we face," Biden said. "The rules and norms that help advance security and prosperity are still evolving."

South Korea and Japan, the two closest US allies in the region, are barely speaking, at odds over historical enmities dating back decades. And there are new, worrying signs from North Korea, where Biden vowed the world would not tolerate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

Hanging over Biden's entire Asia trip were worsening tensions between China and its neighbors over an air defense zone Beijing unilaterally declared over disputed islands. The Obama administration's staunch objections to that step and insistence that China not enforce the zone was a prominent theme during meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The vice president's words, like his trip to Asia, sought to put a fine point on the Obama administration's hopes for realigning America's foreign-policy focus toward Asia, where the US sees opportunities for major expanded prosperity and investment, but also persistent risks of instability. Again and again on his trip, Biden has reassured US allies and potential rivals alike that despite incessant distractions on both foreign and domestic fronts, the US will not concede its push to expand its footprint and influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

President Barack Obama declared early in his tenure that the US was "all in," pledging to increase its influence, military presence and diplomatic outreach in the region, in part as a hedge against China. The concern was that as China came into its own as a superpower, its sway over other Asian nations would grow, too.

But in Obama's second term, Iran, Syria and Egypt have absorbed the president's attention on foreign policy matters. At home, the administration has been consumed with a health care rollout that's become a major political problem, while intense gridlock in Congress has bogged Obama down in domestic disputes.

South Korea's own concerns about frictions in the region were on display earlier Friday when Biden met with President Park Geun-hye at her office amid the sprawling gardens of Seoul's Blue House.

Capping a week of marathon meetings with Asian world leaders, Biden planned to meet Friday afternoon with South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hongwon. Before returning to Washington on Saturday, Biden was to lay a wreath at a ceremony honoring fallen US troops. He'll conclude his trip with a visit to the Demilitarized Zone between South Korea and North Korea, a potent symbol of the deep mistrust that continues to estrange South Korea from its northern neighbor. (AP)

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