Agenda will be full during Obama visit

Updated: 2014-04-23 03:13

By Cai Hong in Tokyo, Zhang Fan in New York and Liu Chang in Washington (China Daily)

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Ceremonies to mask problems in US-Japan relationship, experts say

US President Barack Obama's scheduled arrival in Tokyo late on Wednesday will mark the end of his host's elaborate preparations and the launch of a formal state greeting.

As a state guest of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government, Obama is expected to participate in a raft of formal ceremonies, which could provide fodder for the media but could also keep friction in the Japan-US alliance out of the spotlight.

"These ceremonies can help hide the problems in the Japan-US relationship," said Kazuhiko Togo, director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. "I don't think such formality is important. What matters is that Abe and Obama can have a confidential exchange of views."

Since Junichiro Koizumi, who, as Japanese prime minister, enjoyed a unique personal relationship with then-US president George W. Bush, there has been hardly any "chemistry" between the leaders of the two countries, Togo said.

"Abe should explain his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December, which disappointed the US and left a rift between the two allies," Togo said.

For Abe, Obama's call comes at a pointed moment as Japan has added considerable strain to relations with China and South Korea over historical issues and territorial disputes.

Although China is not included in Obama's Asia tour, experts think it will be a topic in meetings with his Asian counterparts.

"This will not be a China-centered trip, but China is very likely to be part of the conversation in every country that Obama visits," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

"The pre-eminent goal for Obama must be to demonstrate that there is clear content and direction to the US rebalancing policy, without the rebalance being viewed as a code word for countering or opposing China," Pollack said.

On the diplomatic front, an increasingly stronger China will be the main rival of Japan and the US for the next decade or two, Togo said.

"The US and Japan's China policies have something in common, namely, building a stable relationship in which they respect each other. Such relations are in the interests of the US, Japan and China," the former diplomat said.

The areas of concern Obama is expected to address in Tokyo are Japan's strained relations with China and the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership multinational trade agreement and the crisis in Ukraine.

Abe and Obama will mainly discuss strengthening of the Japan-US alliance. A joint statement will be issued after a meeting between Abe and Obama on Thursday that is expected to reiterate the strong Japan-US alliance, according to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun.

"The US, which is adopting a strategy of 'rebalancing' to Asia and has been held up by many thorny problems, expects Japan to get itself out of the territorial dispute with China on the premise of avoiding conflicts," Togo said. "The US does not want to get involved in conflicts between Japan and China."

Still, the US and Japan are expected to reach an agreement on strengthening joint support for the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations.

Japan will deliver two or three of a total of 10 new multi-role patrol boats to the Philippines by the third quarter of 2015, according to Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Obama is also expected to sign a new military cooperation agreement with the Philippines, which expressed willingness earlier this year to buy another two military ships from the US to improve its naval capabilities.

Yet, Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said on Monday at a news conference in Washington, "US engagement with Southeast Asia is not at China's expense, but rather as part of a broader strategy in which we can deepen our ties with ASEAN countries but also maintain very constructive ties with China as well."

Tokyo is the first leg of Obama's Asian tour. He has scheduled stops in the ROK, the Philippines and Malaysia.

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Zhang Yunbi in Beijing contributed to this story.