Trade, security top Obama′s agenda in Japan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.04.2014
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Trade, security top Obama's agenda in Japan

In light of an expanding China and economic challenges, Japan and the US "intend to overcome mutual differences and together forge a sturdy economic order for Asia and the Pacific in the 21st century" with Obama's visit.

G20 Gipfel Russland Sankt Petersburg Barack Obama und Shinzo Abe

President Obama and Prime Minister Abe shaking hands at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last September

US President Barack Obama arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday, where he will seek to reassure Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Washington's commitment to Japan's security, amid rising regional tensions with China and North Korea.

Speaking at a conference in Tokyo on April 17, a week ahead of the visit, Prime Minister Abe said the tone for the meeting had been set at the nuclear summit in The Hague in late March, particularly in terms of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

"Both Japan and the US attach a great deal of importance to rules, uphold the principles of freedom and democracy, and possess the most advanced technologies and industries," Abe said. "We intend to overcome our mutual differences and together forge a sturdy economic order for Asia and the Pacific in the 21st century."

'Foundation for growth'

Symbolbild Obama Reaktion auf Giftgaseinsatz in Syrien

Washington is calling on Tokyo to lower tariffs on beef and ease a number of protective measures

"We wish to create an unshakable foundation for growth," he said. "Rather, I would say it is my firm belief that we must create such a foundation."

Discussions on the TPP have not gone entirely smoothly, with agriculture and the auto sector two areas that have proved to be sticking points. Washington is calling on Tokyo to lower its tariff on beef imports as well as easing protective measures that also ring-fence dairy products, rice and pork. Japan, for its part, wants the US to drop the tariffs imposed on imported cars and trucks, although the powerful US auto lobby is vehemently opposed.

There is a suggestion in the air, however, that President Obama's visit is too good an opportunity to miss and that it might very well coincide with a breakthrough in the debate that allows the two sides to indicate that they have settled some of their differences or even sign an agreement.

One deal that will be signed during the visit is an education exchange program that will double the number of Japanese studying at US universities from 20,000 at present, while raising the number of US students at universities here to 12,000.

Away from trade, the area that will dominate discussions will be regional security, Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, told Deutsche Welle.

Fading influence

"This is really important because there has been the growing sense in the last couple of years that the US is no longer the world's policeman and that it can be challenged in certain parts of the world," he said.

"In the Asia-Pacific region, that is exactly what China is doing and it's crucial that President Obama makes his position clear towards China and North Korea.

"Japan is expecting a clear statement of support for its own territorial interests and broader security, something that will reinforce Washington's commitment to Japan," he said.

President Obama will be walking something of a geo-political tightrope, however, as his eight-day trip will next take him to South Korea, which is locked into a spiral of mutual criticism with Japan over territory and their shared history, including women forced into sexual servitude for the Japanese military during WWII and how history is taught in Japanese schools today. President Obama is expected to reiterate that he is strongly in favor of any moves that Prime Minister Abe could make that would ease its tensions with South Korea as the two nations are Washington's most important allies in the region.

The US leader will not be visiting China, but Beijing is similarly hostile towards Japan at the present and isrefusing to drop its claims of sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku islands - called Diaoyu in China - located to the west of Japan's Okinawa Prefecture.

Region 'more dangerous'

"This region is much more dangerous than it was before and it is not because Mr. Abe is prime minister that we have seen a shift in Japan's security policy," said Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University. "The world has changed.

"I think he is trying to make the relationship with South Korea better, but when it comes to China I think the ball is very much in Beijing's court," he said. "The question is whether China wants to try to marginalize Japan, to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, or whether it realizes that would be a counterproductive move.

"When it comes to the Senkaku islands, it really is up to Beijing to calm the waters," he added.

The US has stated that it takes no position on the territorial dispute, but it has confirmed that it is committed by the terms of the two nations' security pact to defend Japan should it be the target of an attack.

Analysts say the combination of economic and security policies are serving as the two prongs of the "rebalancing" of Washington's foreign policy focus, which President Obama emphasized in his State of the Union address in Congress in January.