SINGAPORE (AP) – President Bush is seeking to reassure nervous Asian allies that the United States will remain a reliable partner in liberalizing trade, confronting North Korea’s nuclear threat and fighting terrorism after an election upheaval back home.

In Bush’s first overseas trip since Republicans lost the House and Senate, world leaders are looking for any sign of change since the election repudiation of his Iraq policy.

In an early embarrassment for Bush, the House failed to approve normalized trade relations with Vietnam – a move Bush wanted completed this week. Instead, Congress probably will consider it in December.

The president arrived in Singapore Thursday morning local time to an understated welcome from the country’s ambassador and deputy prime minister. They presented Bush and his wife, Laura, with a large colorful bouquet of orchids.

Bush’s eight-day journey takes him to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. A week later, he will be in Europe for a summit of NATO leaders. The two trips will take him away from Washington at a crucial time when the postelection, lame-duck Congress is dealing with issues the White House has deemed vital.

The president planned to outline the themes of his trip with a speech in Singapore on Thursday, emphasizing how the United States and Asian nations can work together.

“The Asian leaders will be looking at President Bush’s body language,” said Mike Green, who until earlier this year was senior director for Asia at the National Security Council. “They know he’s the commander in chief. They know that he has two years left, but they’re going to be all looking to see how he plays the game after this political setback.”

En route to Singapore, Air Force One stopped in Moscow for refueling. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, came out to the airport to greet Bush and the first lady on a red carpet. Bush’s stop was a pointed gesture of friendship toward Putin, whose support Bush needs in dealing with North Korea and Iran. Typically, U.S. presidents heading for Asia fly west, not east, and refuel in Alaska.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, talking to reporters aboard Air Force One after Bush left, said the presidents “talked a little bit about proliferation generally” with regard to Iran and North Korea.

Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Alexei Gromov as confirming that a bilateral agreement on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization was being readied for signing in Hanoi.

While the Republican election defeat was cheered by many in Europe, where Bush is highly unpopular, it is a different story in Asia. Many Asian nations are nervous about the rise of China and look to the United States to be a force of strength and continuity. They will be watching for Bush for possible signals.

Along with trade and regional security, the trip will deal with issues such as avian flu, the battle against government corruption, the promotion of freedom and curbing of poverty. Southeast Asia also is an area with active al-Qaida-linked terrorists.

On Friday Bush will travel to Vietnam for the annual summit of 21 Pacific Rim leaders.

On the summit’s sidelines, Bush will meet individually with his partners in talks aimed at persuading a defiant North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. He will meet on Saturday with Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun and on Sunday with Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The leaders will explore how to proceed in the start-and-stop talks on North Korean disarmament. After testing a nuclear bomb Oct. 9, North Korea declared its willingness to return to the negotiations; no date has been set.

Worried about angering Pyongyang, South Korea has balked at Washington’s demand that it fully join a U.S.-led effort to intercept North Korean ships suspected of carrying supplies for the North’s nuclear and missile weapons programs.

Meanwhile, this week’s setback on normal trade relations with Vietnam could portend tough times for other trade legislation when the Democrats take over Congress in January. Many Democrats see trade liberalizing legislation as a threat to American jobs. Bush’s authority to negotiate a “fast-track” agreement that can be submitted to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote without amendments is due to expire on July 1, 2007.

Regarding congressional inaction on Vietnam trade relations, Hadley said, “It is unfortunate that it could not have been done before the president arrived, but I think the message for the Vietnamese people will be, ‘This is going to get done.”‘

After 31/2 days in Vietnam, Bush will visit Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. The president will stop in Hawaii on his way back to the United States and have breakfast Tuesday morning with troops at Hickam Air Force Base before returning to Washington.

AP-ES-11-15-06 1837EST


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