Weakened by an election upheaval at home, US President George W. Bush sought to reassure nervous Asian allies yesterday that the US will remain a reliable partner in liberalizing trade, confronting North Korea's nuclear threat and fighting terrorism.
The president delivered his message in meetings with J.Y. Pillay, Singapore's acting president, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The talks took place at the white-columned Istana palace, which houses the offices of the president, prime minister and other senior officials.
"Singapore is very happy that America has a stake in the region and is growing its stake in the region," Lee said.
For his part, Bush praised Singapore as a model for the rest of Asia. He said the prime minister's advice makes it "easier to conduct wise foreign policy."
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 next month.
Bush's first stop in Singapore was the Asian Civilizations Museum.
The president and his wife, Laura Bush, were treated to a performance of Asian fusion music by a group which played a classical Javanese piece and a Singapore folk song. The musicians, seated on an oriental carpet, played brass and string instruments, gongs and a saron -- an Asian-style xylophone.
"Very good," said Bush, who had been nodding his head and tapping his toes in time with the music.
Pressed to play himself, Bush kneeled on the carpet, briefly banged the saron with a rubber mallet, and then said: "I'm going to quite while I'm ahead."
In another room, the Bushes watched school children perform dances representing Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culture.
The president arrived in Singapore yesterday morning to an understated welcome from the country's ambassador and deputy prime minister.
Bush's eight-day journey takes him to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. The president planned to outline the themes of his trip with a speech in Singapore, emphasizing how the US 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, US 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 WTO was being readied for signing in Hanoi.