Obama Visit to Japan to Set Tone for Four-Nation Asia Tour

President Barack Obama arrived in Japan to start a four-country tour of Asia aimed at advancing a Pacific-nations trade pact and reassuring allies the U.S. will back their security interests, including in territorial disputes with China.

Obama met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outside the Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza area ahead of a private dinner. The leaders, both in suits without ties, shook hands and went inside the restaurant, owned by sushi master Jiro Ono.

The itinerary of Obama’s third visit to Japan as president includes a summit and news conference with Abe, a state dinner with the Imperial family, tour of Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, and round table with business executives.

“Our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally,” Obama said in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun published hours before he arrived. Obama will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, returning to Washington on April 29.

Japan and the U.S. were not set to announce a breakthrough in talks on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, as differences over Japanese beef and pork tariffs and the auto industry impede an agreement. Still, U.S. officials expressed optimism that meetings between Obama, 52, and Abe, 59, could give the negotiations some traction.

Japan posted a wider-than-forecast trade deficit last month, adding to Abe’s challenges following an April 1 sales-tax increase. The 1.8 percent rise in the value of shipments overseas from a year earlier, reported this week by the Ministry of Finance, compared with a 6.5 percent median estimate of 27 economists in a Bloomberg News survey.

Disputed Islands

Obama also is urging Japan and South Korea to improve relations and seeking to coordinate with Abe on ways to ease tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The U.S. recognizes Japan as the sole administrator of the unpopulated islands, which China has challenged through the positioning of ships and flying of surveillance aircraft, escalating military tensions. In November, China declared an air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea. Japan on April 19 broke ground on a new radar base on its westernmost island to improve surveillance in the area.

Obama reiterated the U.S. position in the Yomiuri Shimbun interview, saying it “is clear -- the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

‘No Compromise’

China has signaled a strong stance in territorial disputes in both the East and South China Sea. The Philippines last month challenged China’s assertions to much of the South China Sea, submitting a claim for arbitration to a United Nations tribunal.

The U.S. should be discreet in “word and deed and play a constructive role” in the East China Sea dispute, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters today in Beijing.

“The so-called U.S.-Japan alliance is a bilateral agreement forged in the Cold War era and should not undermine China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests,” Qin said. “We are firmly opposed to the Diaoyu islands being put under the U.S.-Japan treaty.”

China will make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes over territory and resources with Japan and the Philippines, and is ready to fight and win any battle, General Chang Wanquan said April 8 at a briefing in Beijing alongside visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Personal Leadership

There is “no substitute for personal leadership attention” to the territorial tensions, James L. Schoff, a senior associate for Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an essay ahead of Obama’s visit.

If the Obama administration is “too careful and equivocal,” Schoff said, “it could lead to a Chinese miscalculation that the allies are not willing or able to defend their position, perhaps causing Beijing to gamble on a Senkaku takeover or otherwise sharper military conflict.”

Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, a policy center in Washington, said of Obama’s visit with Abe, “I think it’s all about reassurance” for both leaders.

“Both countries actually have had some credibility problems,” she said.

Abe this week sent a traditional offering during the annual spring festival to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals, prompting a rebuke from China and South Korea. He visited the shrine last December.