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Abe’s U.S. visit this month now appears unlikely

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes of visiting the United States this month to meet President Barack Obama and demonstrate Japan’s dedication to bilateral security ties appear likely to be dashed by scheduling conflicts that will push his trip back to February or later, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday.

If Abe’s U.S. trip is delayed, it could significantly affect his diplomatic strategy. Abe has repeatedly emphasized the main pillar of his diplomacy is to strengthen Japan’s military alliance with the United States first and thereby keep China in check. Japan is involved in territorial rows with both China and South Korea.

At a news conference, Suga said tight political schedules on the part of the U.S. have made it difficult to fix a date for the Abe-Obama summit.

“When the prime minister and U.S. President Obama held a teleconference (last month), they agreed to rebuild the Japan-U.S. relationship, and (Obama) hopes (Abe) will visit,” Suga said.

“So we are adjusting schedules right now,” he said.

Suga pointed out that Obama is busy preparing to deliver later this month his State of the Union address.

Asked about a media report that Abe was considering visiting South Korea after the U.S., Suga just said that idea has not been fixed and he had not been briefed about the report.

Vice Foreign Minister Chikao Kawai is in the U.S. to arrange the Abe-Obama meeting.

Tokyo had wanted the summit to take place around Jan. 21, when Obama is sworn in for his second term, but Washington said the timing was not convenient, according to Kyodo News.

One of the sensitive topics the leaders are expected to be address is whether Japan will participate in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks.

At Monday’s news conference, Suga emphasized that the Liberal Democratic Party-led government has not changed its stance of not participating in the trade talks as long as participating countries maintain that “no sanctuaries” for tariffs will be allowed.

During a TV news program Sunday, LDP policy chief Sanae Takaichi said Abe will have his party’s backing if he decides to join the talks. This apparently signalled the party is now willing to at least promote them.

But Suga hinted that the context of Takaichi’s remarks should not be interpreted to mean the party has changed its position.