Updated at: 04/03/2013 12:06 AM
By MATTHEW PENNINGTON
(AP) WASHINGTON - President Barack 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.
The U.S. president met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the third Asian leader to visit the White House this year, as the Obama administration pursues closer ties with countries in the region.
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.
Speaking later to U.S. businessmen, Lee urged the U.S. to adopt a more active trade agenda in Southeast Asia that would set a positive example to the rest of the world when protectionist sentiments are rising.
Lee welcomed U.S. engagement in Asia and urged it to build strategic trust with a rising China, which he said understands that its success depends on a stable international environment.
He said while China’s development represents a major shift in the balance of power, the U.S. will remain the dominant power for decades to come.
Lee is the eldest son of Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. During his four-day visit, he will also travel to New York City and meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
His visit takes place against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea, where several of Singapore’s neighbors have been unnerved by actions by China to assert its disputed territorial claims over small islands and reefs in resource-rich waters where the busy sea lanes are crucial to world trade.
Singapore supports the U.S. security presence in the region, but remains on friendly terms with Beijing.
Also Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and expressed deep U.S. concern about the South China Sea tensions and called for the 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.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)