US President Barack Obama hosts a summit Sunday of Asia-Pacific leaders after announcing ambitious plans for a pan-regional trade zone that have frayed relations with regional rival China.
As Obama welcomed regional leaders to his palm-fringed home state of Hawaii, Japan boosted the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership by announcing it would join talks on what could become the world's biggest free trade area.
But the president, who has dubbed himself America's first Pacific president, balanced his calls for regional unity with a challenge to emerging economic superpower China to sign up to developed world trade standards.
"We represent close to three billion people, from different continents and cultures; North, South, East and West; men and women of every faith, color and creed," Obama said as he welcomed regional leaders at the summit.
Obama, under domestic pressure as he seeks re-election at a time when many heartland Americans think they lost their jobs to low-wage China, told Chinese President Hu Jintao that Americans were "impatient" for a change of Beijing's economic policy.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, would strike down tariffs and trade barriers and inject momentum to liberalization hopes bogged down by inconclusive talks on the Doha trade round.
In Hawaii, the pact got a fresh boost when new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda committed to exploring talks about joining the pact in a move that ran counter to years of political paralysis in Tokyo.
"I have been extremely impressed already with the boldness of his vision," Obama said after meeting Noda Saturday.
Obama has set a goal of doubling US exports to create badly needed jobs at home. But he also hopes that the TPP will serve as a strategic linchpin as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and refocuses on Asia.
The TPP was signed in 2005 as an obscure agreement among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Obama suddenly turned it into the cornerstone of US free trade drive, with Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Peru, the United States and Vietnam now also in the talks.
In a joint statement, leaders of TPP nations said they shared a "strong interest" in expanding their membership.
The major outlier of the TPP is China, the world's second largest economy. Obama, shortly before holding talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, warned that Beijing must "play by the rules" in international trade and intellectual property protection.
The United States has not explicitly ruled out China's entrance into the TPP, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has linked the trade agreement to fundamental values including openness and labor standards.
Despite the US optimism about the TPP, Obama acknowledged that there would be "difficulties" and "sensitivities" among member countries. Most experts believe it will take years before a concrete agreement can come to fruition.
"I'd be surprised if the 2012 deadline were met, particularly in a presidential election year," said Peter Petri, an expert from the East-West Center think-tank.
The details of the trade agreement remain vague and opposition has already built in several countries. Some farm groups in Japan and the United States have both voiced alarm that they would be swamped by global competition.
APEC covers 21 Pacific Rim economies and more than half the global economy.
Obama and First Lady Michelle, in a stylish strapless dress topped with a pink sash, hosted a Hawaiian reception on Saturday evening on the beach, in a rare informal opportunity for top world leaders.