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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama is vowing to strengthen U.S. ties to Asia to try to address global challenges, including climate change and the spread of nuclear weapons. Speaking in Tokyo today, Mr. Obama also tried to sell renewed relations with Asia as a key to job growth back here in the United States.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama spoke to about 1,500 people at Sun Tree Hall(ph) in Tokyo, but his message was also aimed at a wider audience - millions of people watching throughout Asia, as the president makes his first extended visit to the region and millions more in the United States, who Mr. Obama said are not so distant as they might seem.

President BARACK OBAMA: The United States of America may have started as a series of ports and cities along the Atlantic Ocean, but for generations we have also been a nation of the Pacific. Asia and the United States are not separated by this great ocean, we are bound by it.

HORSLEY: For Mr. Obama, those ties are personal. The Hawaiian-born, Indonesian-reared president recalled visiting Japan as a young boy when his mother brought him here to see a centuries-old statue of Buddha sculpted in bronze.

Pres. OBAMA: As a child, I was more focused on the matcha ice cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And I want to thank Prime Minister Hatoyama for sharing some of those memories with more ice cream last night at dinner.

HORSLEY: Foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes says Mr. Obama's Pacific childhood helps to shape his ideas about the region. But the president's overture to Asia is more than an accident of personal geography. Rhodes says it's also a recognition that America's future and Asia's are inextricably linked.

Mr. BEN RHODES (Foreign Policy Speechwriter): This is obviously the fastest growing economic region in the world. For our own economy it supports millions of jobs, a huge amount of our trade. There's potential there for more commerce between us, including the potential to create more American jobs through exports.

HORSLEY: The Obama administration still has some reservations about a major trade agreement with South Korea that's been signed but not ratified for more than two years now. Mr. Obama promised to work through those issues in order to move forward with the deal and to join in talks aimed at a new trans-Pacific trade partnership.

Pres. OBAMA: For America, this is a jobs strategy. Right now, our exports support millions upon millions of well-paying American jobs. Increasing those exports by just a small amount has the potential to create millions more. These are jobs making everything from wind turbines and solar panels to the technology that you use every day.

HORSLEY: Besides economic opportunity, Mr. Obama says stronger ties to Asia are critical to stopping the growth of greenhouse gases and controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. He challenged the leaders of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to take concrete steps towards democratic reform, and he warned North Korea to give up its offensive nuclear program, citing Japan as a model of a country that's prospered by embracing peaceful nuclear power while shunning nuclear weapons.

Japan is rapidly being overtaken in Asia and throughout the world by China's emerging power. Mr. Obama, who travels to China tomorrow, said that country's surging influence isn't necessarily cause for alarm.

Pres. OBAMA: In an interconnected world, power does not need to be a zero-sum game, and nations need not fear the success of another. Cultivating spheres of cooperation, not competing spheres of influence, will lead to progress in the Asia Pacific.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The president vowed to work pragmatically alongside China, where the two countries' interests are aligned. And even though China's now the United States' second-biggest trading partner, and its biggest foreign banker, Mr. Obama says he won't shy away from raising sensitive issues, such as China's record on human rights.

Pres. OBAMA: Of course we will not agree on every issue, and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear, and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people, because support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. But we can move these discussions forward in a spirit of partnership rather than rancor.

HORSLEY: While sticking up for religious freedom, Mr. Obama also noted that Asia's home to religious extremists, those he said defile Islam while planning attacks throughout the world. That's one more reason, he said, Americans should know what happens in Asia can directly affect their lives at home.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Tokyo.

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