By MATTHEW PENNINGTON
FILE – In this April 12, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Washington. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Loong becomes the third Asian leader to visit the White House his yeas as President Barack Obama looks to strengthen ties with Asia in his second term. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Singapore’s prime minister on Tuesday becomes the third Asian leader to visit the White House this year, as President Barack Obama pursues closer ties with countries in the region in his second term.
It’s 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, a close ally, is one of 11 countries taking part in the negotiations.
The U.S. and Singapore also have strong defense ties. Next week, the U.S. will begin rotational deployments of Navy vessels in Singapore, part of its efforts to shift American military presence toward the Asia-Pacific as the U.S. disentangles itself from a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Defense cuts at home and turmoil in the Middle East have raised doubts in Asia about the U.S. ability to sustain its “pivot” 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.
“The prime minister’s visit underscores the strategic importance the president places on Asia and the value we place on our relationship with Singapore as a key partner,” a White House statement announcing Lee’s trip said.
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’ll address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after his White House meeting.
While much attention is currently on Northeast Asia, and North Korea’s threats to attack the U.S. and South Korea, Lee’s four-day visit also takes place against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea, where assertive Chinese actions near disputed islands have unnerved other claimants in Southeast Asia.
Singapore itself is not a claimant, but its prosperity depends on commerce through those busy waters. It is a strong supporter of the U.S. security presence in the region, although it retains cordial ties with China.
Underscoring the 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, who travels to Northeast Asia next week.
Before meeting with Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Kerry expressed deep concern about tensions in the South China Sea and called for the territorial disputes there worked out through arbitration.
During his visit, Singapore’s Lee is also meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Kerry. He’ll also travel to New York City and meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.