The reassuring remarks aimed at Japan and other allies, set
against a robust commentary from China's state news agency Xinhua
that also called the United States "myopic", demonstrate the
delicate balancing act Obama faces on a week-long Asia tour.
Obama arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday at the start of a four-nation
trip that comes at a time of rising tension in the region, and as
the United States urges Japan's unpredictable neighbor North Korea
not to conduct another nuclear test.
Obama, who is making the first full state visit to Japan by a U.S.
President since 1996, must assuage worries by Tokyo and other allies
that his commitment to their defense in the face of an increasingly
assertive China is weak, without hurting vital U.S. ties with Asia's
Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also keen to show
progress on a two-way trade pact seen as critical to a broader
regional deal that would be one of the world's biggest trade
agreements and is central to Obama's "pivot" of military, diplomatic
and trade resources towards Asia.
Noting Beijing and Washington could work together on issues such as
North Korea's nuclear program, Obama told Japan's Yomiuri newspaper,
in written remarks: "In other words, we welcome the continuing rise
of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful and plays a
responsible role in global affairs."
He added: "And our engagement with China does not and will not come
at the expense of Japan or any other ally."
Such assurances are likely to be high on the agenda when Obama meets
Abe at a symbolic summit on Thursday.
Japan, whose relations with rival China have chilled over the past
two years, has been beset by anxiety over the degree to which
reality matches rhetoric in Obama's promised "pivot".
China, for its part, fears the U.S. is pursuing a policy of
containment through its network of Asian allies, several of whom
have long-standing territorial disputes with Beijing in the East and
South China Seas.
Wednesday's Xinhua commentary criticized U.S. policy in the region
as "a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing
"The United States should reappraise its anachronistic hegemonic
alliance system and stop pampering its chums like Japan and the
Philippines that have been igniting regional tensions with
provocative moves," it said.
Obama and Abe are expected to send a message of solidarity after
strains following Abe's December visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine,
seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
Obama also assured Japan that tiny isles in the East China Sea at
the heart of a territorial row with China are covered by a bilateral
security treaty that obligates America to come to Japan's defense.
That is long-stated U.S. policy, but the confirmation by the
president is likely to be welcome in Japan.
"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,
using the Japanese name for the islands that are known as the Diaoyu
in China, which also claims them.
China reiterated that it "resolutely opposed" the islands being part
of the security treaty.
"The so-called U.S.-Japan alliance is a bilateral arrangement from
the Cold War and ought not to harm China's territorial sovereignty
and reasonable rights," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a
regular news briefing in Beijing.
Japanese and Chinese naval vessels and coastguard ships have played
cat-and-mouse around the disputed islets since Japan's government
bought the then-privately owned territory in 2012.
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A joint statement to be issued at the summit will state the two
allies will not tolerate any attempt to change the status quo by
force — a phrase that implicitly targets China — but likely not
mention the islands or China by name, Japanese media have reported.
NUCLEAR NORTH KOREA
Obama also reaffirmed Washington's commitment to the security of
South Korea, and said it would stand firm in its insistence that a
nuclear North Korea was unacceptable.
Seoul is the second stop on Obama's four-nation swing, which also
includes Malaysia and the Philippines.
"The burden is on Pyongyang to take concrete steps to abide by its
commitments and obligations, and the United States, Japan and South
Korea are united in our goal — the complete denuclearization of the
Korean peninsula," Obama said.
North Korea, already subject to United Nations' sanctions over its
previous atomic tests, the third and most recent of which took place
in early 2013, threatened last month to conduct what it call "a new
form of nuclear test".
The United States said on Tuesday it was watching the Korean
peninsula closely after news reports quoted the South Korean
government as saying that heightened activity had been detected at
North Korea's underground nuclear test site.
"We continue to urge North Korea to refrain from actions that
threaten regional peace and security and to comply with its
international obligations and commitments," State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a regular briefing.
Top aides to the two leaders met on Wednesday to discuss a bilateral
trade deal that has so far been stymied largely by Japan's desire to
keep tariffs on politically sensitive farm products such as beef.
"This a moment for Japan to take an elevated view and to choose a
bold path of economic renewal, revitalization and regional
leadership," U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told reporters
after negotiating with Economy Minister Akira Amari ahead of Obama's
Amari said he had briefed Abe on the talks, but declined to comment
on the content of the discussions.
Failure could take the wind out of the push for a broader agreement
among the 12-nation group that would stretch from Asia to Latin
Some trade experts said despite the hurdles, a last-minute agreement
could not be ruled out.
Both sides have stressed that the TPP would have strategic
implications by creating a framework for business that could entice
China to play by global rules.
The TPP talks are at "an important crossroads", Froman said in brief
remarks. "Its economic and strategic importance is clear."
(Editing by Alex Richardson)
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