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Obama takes a detour to reconnect with Southeast Asia

LUANG PRABANG, Laos — President Barack Obama has always liked to move to the languid rhythms of Southeast Asia. On Wednesday, he interrupted a hectic tour of China and Laos to reconnect with his inner Southeast Asian in this beguiling city of Buddhist temples and French colonial villas.

Strolling shoeless under the sloped roofs of a Buddhist monastery, Wat Xieng Thong; shopping for paper lanterns on a side street in the middle of town; drinking from a coconut with a straw while peering at the boats on the Mekong River, Obama savored a tropical afternoon that he said reminded him of his early childhood in Indonesia.

"It's very familiar to me," Obama said at a town hall-style meeting of young people at a university here.

For all the nostalgia, there was a geopolitical rationale for the president's pilgrimage to this former capital. He has made engagement with Southeast Asia a top priority of his foreign policy. And Obama used his session with the group, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, to promote one of the pillars of that policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that includes several Southeast Asian countries but not China.

A young Vietnamese man asked Obama about the failure of Congress to ratify the trade pact, and whether the prospects for the agreement would be better or worse under a new president. Qualms about the future of the agreement are widespread in Southeast Asia, where Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are all signatories to it.

"I believe it will be ratified because it's the right thing to do," Obama said.

On speaking terms: It was brief and it was only pleasantries, but President Barack Obama and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines spoke to each other Wednesday, just two days after Duterte's profane outburst prompted Obama to cancel their first meeting.

The two men spoke while they were waiting to enter a gala dinner at a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations here, a White House official told the New York Times. The official did not say what the two men discussed, except to suggest that it was not substantive.