U.S. President Barack Obama arrived Wednesday evening at Haneda airport at the start of a seven-day Asia tour in which he is expected to reaffirm America’s commitment to maintaining regional security.
Obama is scheduled to hold a 105-minute summit Thursday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and is expected to issue a joint statement reaffirming the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance as a stabilizer in the Asia-Pacific region.
Obama will stay in Tokyo for 2½ days before moving on to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines to meet with other top leaders. The cancelation of a previous Asia tour last October raised doubts about U.S. credibility as a regional partner. This trip is seen by many as a test of Obama’s ability to recover his reputation among Asian leaders.
Obama, who has been portrayed by his critics as weak in his responses to international crises in Syria and Crimea, will be scrutinized closely by regional powers keen to gauge Washington’s willingness to take a proactive role in his administration’s “rebalancing” strategy, ostensibly designed to counter a resurgent China.
In remarks published by the Yomiuri newspaper Wednesday, the president assured Japan that the Senkaku Islands are covered by a long-standing bilateral security treaty that obliges America to come to Japan’s defense.
“The policy of the United States is clear — the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of . . . the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” Obama said in a written reply to the newspaper. “And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” he said.
Japanese officials in Tokyo have said that, among key pledges, Abe and Obama will reaffirm the strength of the Japan-U.S. military alliance and oppose China’s “one-sided attempt to change the status quo by force,” — an apparent reference to Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the East and South China Seas.
The level of detail Obama is willing to give in public — particularly on the U.S. position in relation to the Senkaku Islands dispute — will be a key focus of public attention in Japan. The islets, administrated by Japan but claimed by China, are also known as Diaoyu in Chinese.
“We’d like to use (the Obama-Abe meeting as) an opportunity to send out a signal that the Japan-U.S. alliance is playing a leading role to contribute to peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a daily news conference Wednesday morning.
“While the security environment in the Asia-Pacific region is becoming severer . . . an attempt to change the status quo with force in the background is not tolerable,” Suga added.
Obama is also expected to use the Asia tour as an opportunity to shore up the strained trilateral alliance between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, aimed at maintaining stability in East Asia.
“We encourage Japan to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue,” a U.S. Department of State spokeswoman said Tuesday in Washington during a daily press briefing.
“We believe the strong and constructive relations between countries in the region promote peace and stability and are . . . in their interest and the interest of the United States,” she said.
Suga appeared to downplay questions over economic issues during a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday, as negotiators from the two countries continued last-minute efforts to narrow outstanding gaps over the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact. The two countries are unlikely to reach agreements on key issues, including tariffs on U.S. pork and beef exports and Japanese exports of automobiles, before the Obama-Abe meeting on Thursday.
“We’d like to strengthen economic ties between Japan and the U.S., too,” Suga said.
Obama’s visit as a “state guest” — the highest status afforded to the country’s foreign visitors — has concerned some Japanese diplomats, who appear worried that the U.S. may now be putting less emphasis on its diplomacy with Japan.
First lady Michelle Obama will not be accompanying the president on the tour, though her one-week stay in China in March garnered huge amounts of media attention both in China and abroad.
Obama’s itinerary in Japan remained unconfirmed as late as April 14. The president had originally planned to stay in Tokyo for just one night, but Washington extended his stay to two nights amid requests from Tokyo. A two-night stay is considered the minimum necessary to accord him the status of “state guest,” and arrange for ceremonies with Emperor Akihito.
Speaking during the same news conference, Suga emphasized the significance of Obama’s visit, pointing out that this was the first time in 18 years Japan would be welcoming a U.S. president as a state guest.
“This is a symbol showing (the fact) that the Japan-U.S. ties remain unshakable,” he told reporters. “I hope the personal ties (between Obama and Abe) will deepen (during this visit).”