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Bush Pushes For Strong US-Asia Ties

President Bush says the United States must stay engaged in Asia to boost prosperity and security around the Pacific Rim. In a speech kicking off a three-nation visit to Southeast Asia, the president focused on promoting free trade and dealing with the proliferation threat posed by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

President Bush set the tone for the trip with his speech at the National University of Singapore.

"In this new century, America will remain engaged in Asia because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region," the president said.

Speaking in this bustling island state, the president spoke at length about the power of trade to boost economies. He urged the nations attending this week's Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam to help get the current round of global trade talks back on track. And he spoke of the notion of a Pacific Rim free trade zone.

"Recently, some APEC members have advanced the idea of a free trade agreement for the entire APEC region. I believe this idea deserves serious consideration," he said.

Mr. Bush made no mention of the changes taking place in the U.S. Congress where Democrats - including some who have challenged his trade policies - are getting ready to take control of both chambers. But he did refer in general to opponents of free trade. He said they are wrong.

"We hear voices calling on us to retreat from the world and close our doors to its opportunities," Mr. Bush said. "These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism. And America must reject them."

Asian leaders are also watching to see what, if any, affect the U.S. election results may have on U.S. security policy in the region. Mr. Bush said the United States remains committed to regional security, and he talked tough about the challenge posed by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The president said the risk of North Korean nuclear arms ending up in the wrong hands is the biggest proliferation threat facing the Asia-Pacific region. He urged North Korea to prove its good faith by taking what he called "a peaceful path" to defuse the crisis.

"Pyongyang must show it is serious by taking concrete steps to implement its agreement to give up its nuclear weapons and weapons programs," he said.

President Bush plans to meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Hanoi with the leaders of all the other countries involved in the six-party talks with North Korea: South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

In these and other discussions, the president is expected to bring up challenges such as combating disease, and the need to develop alternative sources of energy. He also stressed in Singapore that he wants to use this trip to promote the power of freedom, saying it has already transformed nations across Asia.

Mr. Bush flies to Hanoi Friday for the APEC summit, before heading to Indonesia on Monday.