Bush calls for free trade, curbing N. Korea

US President George W. Bush assured Asian allies that the United States is committed to the region, as he called for creating an Asia-Pacific free trade area and keeping nuclear North Korea on leash. "In this new century, America will remain engaged in Asia, because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region," Bush said in a Thursday evening speech outlining his vision for US engagement of Asia. "We must maintain our presence in the Pacific. We must seize on our common opportunities. We must be willing to confront our common threats," said Bush. With China's influence on the rise and his own stature weakened at home after his Republican Party lost midterm elections to Democrats - some of whom are seen as anti-free trade - Bush is being viewed by many in the region as a lame-duck president. But regardless of the changed political landscape, Bush made it clear that the US commitment to global free trade has not diminished, as he urged Asian leaders to revive the so-called Doha round of talks on free trade at the World Trade Organization. The talks collapsed four months ago because of differences between the US and Europe over farm subsidies and tariffs, and no new talks are scheduled. "Only an ambitious Doha agreement with real market access can achieve the economic growth and development goals that this world has set," Bush said in a speech at the National University of Singapore. "We look to nations across the Asia-Pacific region to help put these vital talks back on track, to help build up momentum," he said. Bush spent Thursday in Singapore, the first stop of his eight-day, three-nation Asian tour. Early Friday morning he departed for Hanoi, Vietnam to attend a summit of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. APEC, dismissed by many as a talk shop with no teeth, is struggling to evolve into a free trade area, an idea first proposed at the APEC summit in 1994 in Bogor. It was suggested then that all trade should be liberalized by 2010 for developed economies and 2020 for developing economies. "I believe this idea deserves serious consideration. The United States believes APEC is the premier economic forum in the region. It has immense potential to expand free trade" in the region, said Bush in Singapore Thursday. He said Asia's economic growth shows that expansion of trade is the "most certain path to lasting prosperity" and "America will continue to pursue trade at every level with individual countries, across all regions and through the WTO." The wide-ranging speech dealt with the nuclear standoff with North Korea, terrorism, energy security, global diseases such as SARS and bird flu, and poverty. Bush warned Pyongyang against transferring nuclear weapons or material to other countries, saying such an act would be considered a "grave threat" to the United States. "We would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action," Bush said in the speech at the National University. Bush also urged allies in the region to stand firm against a nuclear-armed North Korea and enforce UN sanctions against the country for test-firing a nuclear bomb last month. "For the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated," he said. Bush also touched on the growing need for energy in the region, noting that four of the world's top five energy consumers are APEC members. "The answer to this challenge is familiar in Asia: Harness the power of technology," he said, adding that the US is investing aggressively in developing lean coal technology, renewable fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, and hydrogen fuel cells. But technology and global openness are also being used by terrorists, Bush warned. "The danger is unmistakable. In an age of unprecedented technological advances, irresponsible behavior by a few can have catastrophic consequences for the entire world," he said.