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Obama's Asia trip: In Singapore, a focus on US staying power

On the second stop of Obama's Asia trip, the president will meet with the 10 ASEAN leaders in a region that welcomes the US presence as a counterbalance to China.

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It's a region where Obama has personal ties: As a child, he lived for four years in Indonesia, where his presidency has drawn rapt attention.

The positive accent on his visit, which starts Saturday, may say less about his charisma, however, than about lingering anxieties here over US disengagement from the region. Few expect any bold initiatives on trade liberalization or other economic issues, in contrast to China's energetic brand of commercial diplomacy.

But the symbolic value of a US presidential tour, coupled with a much-anticipated inaugural summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), could help to reassure doubters of America's staying power in Asia. As China extends its economic influence, few appear ready to turn their backs on a half-century of US military dominance in the Pacific's contested waters.

This should compensate for a lack of giveaways by the leader of what still is, by far, the world's richest country, despite Asia's commercial success.

"It's not short-term goodies that ASEAN wants, it's a long-term commitment," says Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Public Policy School at the National University of Singapore and a former diplomat. "The long-term signal is what he has to send."

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