A South Korean request for a visit by President Barack Obama is complicating Japan’s effort to welcome the American leader as a state guest in late April, according to sources.
Tokyo has proposed that Obama visit from April 20 to 23 for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will visit the United States from Friday to discuss the proposal with Secretary of State John Kerry, said the sources.
But South Korea’s own appeal poses a problem for Washington, which must weigh the matter in the context of ongoing tension between its two Asian allies over a territorial dispute and perceptions of wartime history.
A state visit by Obama would be the first by a U.S. president since Bill Clinton’s 18 years ago.
Japanese officials hope an Obama state visit would enhance the alliance while easing U.S. discontent over Abe’s recent visit to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, in defiance of a U.S. request. The visit increased tensions with South Korea and China.
The U.S. government is also mulling a visit by Obama to South Korea and some Southeast Asian countries around the same time. The South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye is reportedly calling for a relatively long stay by Obama, casting doubt on Japan’s hopes for a state visit.
Were Obama to meet with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Tokyo and attend a banquet at the Imperial Palace as a state guest, he would have to stay for some days in Japan and shorten his time elsewhere.
The U.S. government is expected to fix the schedule for his Japan visit within the month, the sources said.
At the planned summit, Abe is expected to brief Obama on the reasons behind his Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine.
The Shinto shrine honors leaders convicted of war crimes along with war dead. Many in other parts of Asia consider the visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders as insensitive to their sufferings from Japan’s wartime aggression.
Abe’s Yasukuni visit triggered criticism particularly from China as well as South Korea, although he said he wanted to pay tribute to the war dead and didn’t intend to hurt the feelings of Chinese and Koreans.
The U.S. government disapproved of the visit, a rare criticism of Tokyo, and expressed concern that Abe’s move could destabilize Northeast Asia.
Abe visited Yasukuni over the objections of senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, who conveyed his request by phone in early December. But Abe said he would make up his own mind, Kyodo earlier reported.
Convening leaders would also discuss operations between the U.S. military and the Self-Defense Forces to maintain peace and stability in Asia and ongoing negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, in which Japan and the United States lead 10 other Pacific Rim nations.
“If President Obama visits Japan as a state guest, it will help show off the stable Japan-U.S. alliance to the world,” a Japanese government source said.