Obama leaves Tokyo, proceeds to Seoul

April 26, 2014 - 12:00:00 am

TOKYO:  US President Barack Obama wrapped up a state visit to Japan yesterday during which he assured America’s ally that Washington would come to its defence, but failed to clinch a trade deal key to both his “pivot” to Asia and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms.

Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been seeking to display the alliance was strong in the face of a rising China, but their success in putting recent strains behind them was partly marred by a failure to reach a deal seen as crucial to a broader regional trade pact.

That failure delayed a joint statement on security and economic ties until shortly before the US leader left for Seoul, the next stop on his week-long, four-nation Asian tour. 

Obama and Abe had ordered their top aides to make a final push to reach a trade agreement after the leaders met on Thursday, but Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters that gaps remained despite recent progress. 

“This time we can’t say there’s a basic agreement,” Amari told reporters after a second day of almost around-the-clock talks failed to settle differences over farm products and cars. “Overall, the gaps are steadily narrowing.” 

Seeking to put a positive spin on the trade front, the two sides said in their statement that they were committed to taking “bold steps” to reach a two-way deal, which would inject momentum into a delayed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

“There are still details to be worked out. There is still much work to be done ... We believe we do have a breakthrough in our bilateral negotiations,” said the senior official accompanying Obama to South Korea.

Obama on Thursday assured Japan that Washington was committed to coming to its defence, including of tiny isles at the heart of a row with China, but denied he had drawn any new “red line” and urged peaceful dialogue over the dispute.

Yesterday’s joint statement echoed those comments and put in writing a long-held US stance that the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are covered by a security treaty that obliges Washington to defend Japan.

Those comments drew a swift rebuke from Beijing, which also claims sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Japanese and Chinese patrol ships have been playing cat-and-mouse near the isles, and Washington is wary of being drawn into any clash.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China had “serious concerns” about some of the contents of the joint statement.

“We urge the United States and Japan to abandon their Cold War mentality, and respect the concerns and interests of other countries in the region, and avoid further interference with regional peace and stability,” he told a daily news briefing. 

The allies also said they wanted to build productive ties with China but expressed concern about its Air Defence Identification Zone covering the disputed isles, announced last year, as well as activities fanning tensions in the South China Sea, where other Asian countries have rows with Beijing. “Our two countries oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force,” the statement said. 

The diplomatic challenge for Obama during his week-long, regional tour is to convince Asian partners that Washington is serious about its promised strategic pivot, without harming US ties with China, the world’s second-biggest economy. Beijing has painted the “pivot” as effort to contain the rising Asian power.

Abe, who returned to office in 2012 pledging to boost Japan’s security stance and tighten ties with the United States, hailed the joint statement as “historic” and said a “key milestone” had been reached in the trade talks.