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Obama Looks to Ease Japan-China tensions (I)

Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR | 28.04.2014 | 00:00

From a Chinese perspective, the United States President Barack Obama’s 3-day state visit to Japan on Wednesday was the high point of his current tour to Asia, which was to take him to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines as well. China held breath and the sigh of relief was almost audible when Obama left Japan and headed for Seoul. 

A presidential visit from the US to Japan is bound to generate much interest for the regional politics in Asia-Pacific, given the tensions in Japan-China relations and the complexities of the «new type of major country relations» that China and the US are committed to promote. The diplomatic pirouette is also playing out currently against the backdrop of the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia and China’s acrimonious territorial disputes with its neighbors. 

However, Obama’s two-day state visit to Japan on Wednesday was of exceptional importance because the regional and international security situation has transformed beyond recognition in the past couple of months or so. The developments in Ukraine cast their shadows on the Sino-American relationship. China would be keenly assessing whether the emergent preoccupations in the Euro-Atlantic space would diminish the US’s capacity to give ballast to its rebalance strategy in the Asia-Pacific – and if so, how the US’ regional allies adjust themselves to the new reality… 

On the other hand, China is quietly pleased that its «neutral» stance on the Ukraine crisis, which apparently suits Russia, has at the same time been appreciated in Washington too. China would probably expect that the Obama administration feels prompted to reciprocate by showing greater sensitivity toward issues that China regards as of core interest to it. The Chinese commentaries have noted the likelihood of the Ukraine crisis «escalating» in the coming period and profoundly affecting the West’s relations with Russia in the short- and medium-term perspective. Most Western analysts are inclined to judge that the trend of the big-power politics in the event of damage to the West’s relations with Russia could only work to China’s advantage in geopolitical terms. 

Woven into this matrix is the Chinese expectation that the US is uniquely placed to exercise a moderating influence on Japan, out of which of course China hopes to gain, because time works in China’s favor and keeping the US as much to the median ground as possible would only work against Japan’s attempts to isolate China and pile up pressure on China. 

Besides, while China is reconciled to the fact that the US-Japan alliance is on firm foundations, it is also conscious of the nuanced partnership between the two traditional allies. An increasingly assertive Tokyo under its nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe is exploring new frontiers not only in the country’s foreign and security policies but also on issues relating to its external economic policies on trade and investment, as evident from the differences impeding the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] free trade negotiations between Tokyo and Washington. 

In fact, when Obama’s visit to Japan was originally scheduled, there was high expectation that the TPP would be finalized by the end of last year. But, on the contrary, it wasn’t, and on the eve of Obama’s arrival in Tokyo, Japan’s TTP minister Akira Amari openly admitted that the two sides were in a «stalemate» over key issues and that «fairly big gaps» remained to be bridged. 

The US Trade Representative Michael Froman held last minute discussions with Amari, but couldn’t resolve the thorny issues and Obama singled out the agriculture and automobile sectors as sticking points. 

Obama said he was «very clear and honest» with Abe in their talks that «American manufacturers and farmers need to have meaningful access to markets that are included under TPP» and the time has come for Japan to take «bold steps that are needed to reach a comprehensive agreement. Abe on his part insisted that much as Tokyo hopes to conclude the talks «very quickly», any compromise would have to pay heed to a resolution adopted by the Diet on the 5 so-called «sacred sectors» (rice, wheat, beef and pork, diary products and sugar) and, therefore, needs to be «the path in the best interest of the country». 

The joint statement issued after Obama’s visit merely called upon the TPP partners «to move as soon as possible to take the necessary steps» and acknowledged, «there is still much work to be done to conclude TPP». 

The failure to clinch the TPP wasn’t only factor that took the lustre out of Obama’s visit. The fact remains that just 48 hours before Obama’s arrival, Abe on Monday made a controversial move to make a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine. This was despite the disappointment voiced by Washington rather explicitly over Abe’s visit to the Shrine. 

Abe’s move may or may not have amounted to a «slap on Obama’s face», as the Chinese media reports quickly estimated, but all the same, the political message couldn’t have been lost on the US president. Possibly, Obama might have responded to the snub in an indirect way at his joint press conference with Abe when suo moto disclosed that he «emphasized» to the Japanese prime minister the «importance of… not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions» in Japan-China ties. 

With Abe intently listening, Obama added that the US is «trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together». And then, Obama went on to make a «larger point», as he characterized it: «We [US] have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region, but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China. I think there’s enormous opportunities for trade, development, working on common issues like climate change with China… I think there’s a great potential for Chinese and Japanese cooperation, Chinese and Vietnamese cooperation, cooperation with the Philippines and China – all of which will benefit the peoples of the region». 

By the way, coinciding with Obama’s visit to Japan, Beijing also received an influential American politician – US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Receiving Cantor in Beijing, Chinese Premier Li Kequing stressed that the two countries should respect each other and promote sound and stable development of the relationship. Li pointed out that China and the US have «more common interests than disputes» and China’s reform promises to further opening up of the economy, which would create new opportunities for cooperation. He specifically called for the speeding up of the negotiation on investment agreement and for deepening cooperation in all areas. 

Significantly, Li signaled that while China’s «unshakeable will» to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be ignored, Beijing stands «ready to work with other countries to safeguard international and regional peace and stability». In a separate meeting with Canter, China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi also harped on the same theme. Clearly, both Li and Yang were tuned in to Obama’s ongoing state visit to Japan. 

(To be continued)

Tags: Asia-Pacific China Japan US Obama

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