Mideast push helps US in Asia: Kerry aide

The US push to make peace in the Middle East is paying off in Southeast Asia by improving the US image among young Muslims, a senior official said Friday.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this week resumed long-stalled negotiations on a peace deal after six trips to the region in as many months by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Danny Russel, the top State Department official for East Asia, rejected criticism that Kerry has switched focus away from Asia and said he heard praise in the region for the Middle East efforts.

"The seriousness and the activism of these efforts on Secretary Kerry's part and the visibility that is attached to them changes the regional stereotype of the United States as biased or as not helpful," Russel told reporters.

In Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, "there has been a long-held perception that the United States wasn't actively engaged as a constructive force in bringing about reconciliation and peace and justice in the Middle East," he said.

Russel pointed out that Indonesia and Malaysia had young populations, meaning that many "have no experience of the United States other than an inherited stereotype."

Due to negative perceptions, "it has often been difficult for political leaders to justify or to get broad-based public support for dramatic steps to support the US and to help on programs that are important to us, whether that is counter-terrorism or counter-proliferation or other things," he said.

President Barack Obama and his first-term secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, put an early priority on building relations with Southeast Asia, charging that former president George W. Bush ignored the vibrant region due to preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has seen Indonesia as a prime partner following the rapid transition to democracy in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

Obama has also moved to expand ties with Malaysia, whose former leader Mahathir Mohamad was an strident critic of the West.