WASHINGTON – focus
With U.S. President Barack Obama bound for Japan in April, political observers are focused on whether the two governments can move past a disagreement over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s contentious visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in December.
The White House announced Obama’s trip to four Asian countries, also including South Korea, amid uncertainties surrounding China’s bid to expand its maritime presence in East and Southeast Asia and North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Japan and the United States must reaffirm the alliance, especially by building mutual trust between Abe and Obama, to better deal with such regional issues, U.S. analysts say.
Even before Japan-U.S. relations were overshadowed by Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, which drew rebukes from Washington, the prime minister had demonstrated less chemistry with Obama than South Korean and Chinese leaders.
Abe went to the White House two months after taking office in December 2012. He promoted agreements with Obama on key economic issues but the summit was generally uneventful.
In contrast, press coverage showed South Korean President Park Geun-hye taking a casual walk with Obama without interpreters on the White House grounds and delivering a speech to Congress last May.
The next month, Obama held intensive two-day talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the Sunnylands retreat in California. Recognizing tension between Japan and China, as well as Japan and South Korea, due to territorial and historical disputes, Obama and other U.S. leaders repeatedly called last year for efforts to ease regional tensions peacefully.
Abe’s shrine visit in December threw cold water on the U.S. efforts, however, as it angered neighboring peoples, who regard Yasukuni — which honors Japanese leaders convicted as World War II criminals, as well as war dead — as a symbol of past Japanese militarism.
Abe also effectively ignored objections by Obama’s right-hand man, Vice President Joe Biden, in paying the visit and thus prompted Washington to say it was “disappointed.”
Reflecting U.S. concerns about Abe’s thoughts on regional history, The Washington Post said in its Wednesday edition that U.S. officials are “wondering” whether Abe is a nationalist or a reformer.
The White House said the purpose of Obama’s trip will be to “increase U.S. diplomatic, economic and security engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”
To fulfill the goal, Abe and Obama will need to nail down details about the U.S. concept of “rebalance” of Asia, a phrase Obama’s administration uses to promote its strategy of focusing on the Asia-Pacific region, according to panelists at recent forums on bilateral ties.
Japan, which faces China’s aggressive claim to the Japan-controlled Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, believes security and military measures should take priority in the so-called Asia rebalance strategy, the experts say.
The Obama team, however, emphasizes economic relations such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact under the slogan, according to recent remarks by administration officials.