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Obama, Biden discuss tensions with Russia, Georgia leaders
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Aug 5, 2009


Photo courtesy of AFP.Senate panel endorses Obama ambassadors to Japan, China
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday approved President Barack Obama's nominees for ambassadors to key allies Japan and China. The panel approved longtime Internet and biotechnology lawyer John Roos as ambassador to Japan and Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman -- a fluent Mandarin speaker who has been seen as a possible contender for the White House in 2012 -- to be Obama's eyes in Beijing. The voice vote set up consideration by the full Senate, expected to take place later this week before lawmakers leave for the August recess. The panel's chairman, Democratic Senator John Kerry, said he expected the nominees to be "out this week." Huntsman "is going to do a superb job. He's a very, very qualified and capable individual," Kerry said. Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the committee, also threw his backing behind Huntsman, who he said is "an incredibly able man who will bring the skills he exemplified as governor to our fundamentally important relationship with China." During a confirmation hearing in July, Roos pointed to "the special bond between our two countries," the United States and Japan. If confirmed, "I will devote myself to strengthening and expanding that bond," he said. The first foreign leader Obama invited to the White House was Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Japan the first stop on her maiden foreign trip as US diplomacy chief. The 49-year-old Huntsman, who also speaks Taiwanese, vowed in a confirmation hearing last month that he would bring a "hard-headed realist" approach to Sino-US relations and said he felt personally invested in the fate of Taiwan. He also said he would work to improve economic and military ties in the sometimes difficult 30-year relationship between Beijing and Washington, as well as bolster cooperation on issues like climate change and North Korea. Roos, 54, who served as the Northern California finance chair for Obama's record-shattering 2008 presidential campaign, is chief executive officer of the law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, California. Recent US ambassadors to Tokyo have included former vice president Walter Mondale and former senior lawmakers Howard Baker and Mike Mansfield. Roos's nomination drew fire from critics who said Obama had tapped fundraisers with no diplomatic experience to fill too many plum posts. Many Japanese are nervous that the United States will ignore its longstanding Asian ally as it builds ties with a rapidly growing China. While Tokyo publicly welcomed Roos's appointment, some Japanese worry that he is less robust a figure than Obama's pick for China, in a sign that Beijing may be overshadowing Tokyo's ties with Washington. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for 20 other nominees to a string of diplomatic posts, including Phil Murphy to be ambassador to Germany, John Bass to be the top US diplomat in Georgia and Glyn Davies to be the US representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Under the US Constitution, the Senate must confirm ambassadorial nominees, who typically first face questioning by the foreign relations committee.

US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday expressed concerns about fresh tensions between Russia and Georgia in telephone calls with the leaders of the rival ex-Soviet states.

The White House said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Obama to wish him a happy 48th birthday, and that the leaders discussed the need to calm rattled nerves in the region, a year on from a Russia-Georgia war.

Just hours after the calls, reports emerged that Russian nuclear-powered submarines were patrolling the waters off the US East Coast, the first such move in several years and one that has US officials concerned about the potential for rising tensions between Moscow and Washington.

It was not clear whether the movements of the submarines, first reported by the New York Times on its website late Tuesday, were discussed by Medvedev and Obama.

Biden called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and expressed concern over the Russia-Georgia situation, as Georgia warned of the risk of a new war with Russia and Moscow raised the battle-readiness of its forces, ahead of the anniversary of their conflict over rebel South Ossetia.

"Russian President Medvedev called President Obama today to wish him happy birthday," the White House said in a press statement.

"During the call, the presidents discussed the situation in Georgia and the need to decrease tensions in the region.

"President Obama reiterated the importance of working through established crisis management mechanisms such as the Joint Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism and underscored the need for international monitors."

Later, the White House said Biden called Saakashvili to "discuss the current situation in Georgia."

"Vice President Biden expressed concern about the recent escalation in tensions and emphasized that all parties should avoid destabilizing actions."

Biden also "reiterated US support for Georgia's democracy."

Saakashvili had earlier called on the United States and the European Union to send a "clear message" to Moscow to help avert a new war, as both sides exchanged accusations of attacks and "provocations" in the region.

The Russian foreign ministry meanwhile said its forces had heightened their state of battle-readiness in South Ossetia.

"The situation is very worrying and the Georgian provocations ahead of the anniversary of last year's war are not halting," foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement.

Obama's administration is walking a tightrope between its desire to reset ties with Moscow and showing support for its ally Georgia, as tensions rise again between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Russia smashed a Georgian military offensive to recapture South Ossetia in a brief war in August last year, sending relations between Moscow and Washington during the final months of George W. Bush's administration to post-Cold War lows.

Biden risked irking Russia last month when he said in a speech in the ex-Soviet republic that Obama backed Georgia's aspiration to join NATO.

The White House also said that Obama and Medvedev used Tuesday's conversation to discuss the need to "move forward quickly" on agreements reached at their summit last month in Moscow.

"In particular, the presidents reaffirmed their commitment to complete negotiations on a follow-on agreement to START by December of this year."

Obama and Medvedev signed a declaration in Moscow pledging to reach a new nuclear arms pact to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

But the latest submarine revelations threaten to raise tensions once again.

Citing defense and intelligence officials speaking on condition of anonymity, the Times reported that one of the submarines remained in international waters some 200 miles (320 kilometers) off the US coast, while the location of the other remained unclear.

"Any time the Russian Navy does something so out of the ordinary it is cause for worry," a senior US Defense Department official who has monitored reports about the submarines was quoted as saying.

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