U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Japan on April 23 as part of four-nation Asian swing to push negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and strengthen U.S. security ties to counter China's influence.
Obama will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In summit talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 24, Obama will discuss broader security cooperation in Asia within the context of the importance the United States places on the region.
It is Obama's third visit to Japan, and the first time in 18 years for an incumbent U.S. president to be treated as a state guest. That honor was last bestowed on Bill Clinton in 1996.
Obama kicked off his visit by dining with Abe in Tokyo soon after his arrival. In their summit talks, the two leaders will discuss hurdles still to be overcome in the TPP negotiations and measures to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Afterward, they will release a joint statement.
In Washington, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, emphasized in a news conference April 21, “The alliance with Japan is really a cornerstone of our Asia strategy.”
That seemed to suggest that Obama intends to talk about how U.S. forces should be deployed in Japan and greater cooperative relations between the two countries.
For his part, Abe will explain the role that he believes Japan should play in the field of defense. With the United States displaying a more assertive role in the region, Abe believes that close cooperation will help to keep China and North Korea in check.
On the alliance with Japan, Rhodes also said, “We have a mutual defense treaty (Japan-U.S. Security Treaty) that we take very seriously, and there should be no question that the United States will always honor its obligations to the defense of Japan.”
This assurance offers a huge boost to Japan, which is locked in a dispute with China over sovereignty of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which has given rise to heightened tensions.
“With respect to the territorial disputes, in a broader sense, of course we are going to reaffirm and reassure our Japanese ally at a time when there are regional tensions,” Rhodes said.
But he urged both Japan and China to settle their differences through talks.
It remains unclear whether Obama will refer to the Senkaku issue during a joint news conference to be held after the summit meeting.
With regard to the TPP negotiations, Japan, as well as the United States, is hoping to push the process forward. Tokyo is keen to seize the initiative in the Pan-Pacific region by establishing trade rules with Washington.
By the same token, Japanese officials hope to reach agreement with the United States on several major sticking points, including reductions in tariffs on farm products in five key categories.
Obama will fly to South Korea on April 25 for talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye centering on North Korea.
“They'll have the opportunity to discuss our alliance, our shared security cooperation, particularly our efforts to stand up to provocative acts from the North Koreans, but also our broader defense and security cooperation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” Rhodes said.
In light of soured relations between Japan and South Korea on the “comfort women” issue and different interpretations of history, Obama is expected to offer suggestions on ways for the two countries to improve their ties.
Getting Japan and South Korea to put aside their differences is all part of the U.S. strategy of shoring up its partnerships in the Asian region.
Obama was initially scheduled to visit Malaysia and the Philippines last October, but he had to postpone the trips to deal with the shutdown of federal agencies.
It will be the first visit to Malaysia by a U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson went in 1966. Summit talks centered on TPP negotiations are scheduled for April 27.
The United States and Malaysia remain far apart on some issues, including reform of state-run companies. It appears doubtful that an agreement will be reached during Obama’s stay.
In the Philippines, Obama will hold talks with President Benigno Aquino.
They are expected to sign a defense agreement that will enable the United States to use the Philippines as a military stronghold again. The U.S. military withdrew from the Philippines in the 1990s.
Rhodes said Obama will also discuss “maritime security and territorial issues that are currently front and center in the region” with the two leaders.
Malaysia and the Philippines are among countries in Asia that have territorial issues with China in the South China Sea.
(This article was compiled from reports by Takashi Oshima and Kotaro Ono in Tokyo and Atsushi Okudera in Washington.)
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