Obama leaves for China, Myanmar, Australia tour

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Obama's Asia tour aims to bolster ties with region

Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama departed for China on Sunday, on a trip meant to help allay Washington's sometimes tense relations with Beijing.

Obama left Washington in the pre-dawn hours en route to an air force base in Alaska, where his plane refueled before traveling on to Beijing.

The US leader was accompanied on his eight-day trip, which also includes visits to Myanmar and Australia, by his national security adviser Susan Rice and several other top aides.

The China leg of his trip will be dominated by Obama's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the White House said it expects "candid and in-depth conversations."

The relationship between the two superpowers, which US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the "most consequential" in the world today, has been marred by tensions over the South China Sea, cyberspying and human rights issues.

Obama will also attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.

In Myanmar, Obama will meet President Thein Sein and opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi and attend a summit of ASEAN nations in Naypyidaw.

Washington has raced to normalize ties with Myanmar following reforms there, removing most US sanctions imposed on the military junta.

But Suu Kyi warned this week that the pace of change was slowing, and that the US had been "over-optimistic about the reform process" at times.

- Obama could meet Putin -

The White House said it remained committed to democratic reform in Myanmar.

"We will underscore the United States' commitment to the protection of human rights, tolerance and pluralism, as well as sustaining and deepening the democratic transition," Rice said.

When the president goes on to a G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, the unrest in Ukraine may also be a focus.

Obama could meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss Ukraine.

No formal meetings have been scheduled, but neither side has ruled out the possibility of informal discussions. The last time the two leaders met face to face was in June in France.

North Korea could also be on the agenda, following the arrival of two Americans in the US on Saturday.

US citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller marked their first full day of freedom Sunday, returning to the United States after being imprisoned in North Korea.

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary at the US State Department, told CNN television on Sunday that while Pyongyang might be on the agenda "they can't be trusted," he said.

"It's an erratic regime. It's a dictatorship of one person and one family, so the best thing I think we can do... is contain the problem, contain the regime, sanction them, repudiate them and hope that China helps in that containment policy," he added.

The trip follows a difficult week for Obama, after the Democrats suffered a severe blow in midterm elections that saw Republicans take control of the Senate.

Obama will have to convince international partners that he can still assert his presence at home when it comes to steering foreign relations in his final two years in the White House.

The US president will also have to convince Asian partners that he intends to re-balance diplomatic ties in the region -- a pillar of his foreign policy -- amid ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.