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18 November, 2012 - 17:49

Obama heads for Asia with key stop in Myanmar

President Barack Obama headed to Asia on Saturday for a tour of three countries on his first foreign trip since winning re-election that will see him make a once unthinkable stop in Myanmar.The first trip by a US president spent entirely in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War, the visit that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia aims to emphasize the Obama administration's focus on the dynamic and largely US-friendly region where several nations worry about a rising China.But his tour also comes at an awkward time amid a spiraling conflict between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas with the Jewish state poised to launch its first ground offensive on the Palestinian territory in four years.At home, Obama is in tough negotiations with lawmakers to avoid steep automatic budget cuts and tax hikes that could send the country back into recession.Obama launched a so-called "pivot" to Asia in his first term that included greater military cooperation with Australia, Thailand and Vietnam and a plan to shift the bulk of the US navy to the Pacific by 2020.Virtually no nation has seen a greater shift toward the United States under Obama than Myanmar. The nation formerly known as Burma was for years a close ally of China and treated as a pariah by Western nations.Surprising skeptics, Myanmar launched reforms after its nominal end to nearly half a century of army rule last year. President Thein Sein, a former general, released political prisoners, opened dialogue with ethnic rebels and allowed once-confined opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for parliament.Thailand is the oldest US ally in Asia, famously offering elephants to Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. But the kingdom has been consumed by internal disputes, which escalated in 2010 into violence that left more than 90 people dead.Obama will be the first sitting US president to visit Cambodia, a staunch China supporter.On the sidelines of an East Asia Summit there, Obama will meet China's outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan, amid a dispute between the two countries over islands in the East China Sea and the oil and gas fields in the disputed waters.