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Kerry Abe

Minefields in Obama’s trip to Asia

By Fraser Cameron

11 February 2014

This week John Kerry embarks on another visit to Asia seeking to remind everyone that the US pivot is still on track. In late April Barack Obama will visit Asia - Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. China is not on the list as Obama will pay a separate visit there later in the year.

Kerry will discuss political, security and economic issues in his trip. He will no doubt face questions about TPP. The next round of negotiations is scheduled for later this month but there are increasing doubts as to whether TPP can be completed in a reasonable timeframe given the inability of the Obama administration to secure fast track authority from Congress. If the President cannot secure the necessary support in Washington it is unlikely that Prime Minister Abe will risk political capital in trying to push for internal reforms in Japan.

But top of Kerry’s agenda will be the poor state of relations between Japan and China and Japan and Korea. Its two major allies in Asia are hardly talking to each other while China seeks every opportunity to exploit the rifts. The US faces a major dilemma in trying to coax Tokyo and Seoul to improve relations. How to support Japan, its main Asian ally and host to thousands of US troops, without appearing to back Abe's increasing nationalist agenda?

Washington was furious about Abe’s January visit to the Yasukuni shrine, especially as VP Biden had left Tokyo after his December visit with the firm impression that such a provocative act was not on the agenda. The US embassy issued a critical statement about the visit as did China, the EU, Korea, Russia and even the UN. This prompted something of a backlash in Japan with some commentators suggesting that Japan-US relations would only improve under a Republican administration.

Things worsened last week when the US embassy in Tokyo strongly condemned remarks by two senior officials at the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) appointed by Abe. Katsuto Momii said that all armies, including the US, had used ‘comfort women’ during the war. Then Naoki Hyakuta denied that the Nanjing massacre had taken place and said that the US staged its trials of alleged Japanese war criminals after Japan's defeat in 1945 to cover up American war crimes. The embassy statement said that such statements were preposterous and added ‘we hope that people in positions of responsibility in Japan and elsewhere would seek to avoid comments that inflame tensions in the region.’

 One senior US official was quoted as asking ‘If Abe is so wrong in his assessments of the greatest strategic catastrophe in Japan's history, how can we have confidence in his ability to understand and rationally react to today's strategic challenges?’

President Park of Korea has called for Abe to endorse two past Japanese government statements that acknowledged historical wrongdoings. One was a statement of apology that Prime Minister Murayama had issued in 1995 to countries that Japan had occupied before and during World War II. The second was the 1993 apology by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei for the Japanese army using ‘comfort women.’ So far Abe has rejected suggestions that repeating apologies are necessary.

Kerry will also have a difficult time in Beijing as the US government has recently taken a tougher line on the disputes in the South China Sea. Evan Medeiros, the responsible official in the White House, has stated that the setting of another ADIZ (in the SCS) would be seen as ‘a provocative and destabilizing development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region.’ He also made clear that any sovereignty claims should be based on land projections and not rocks, and promised US support for the Philippines taking their claim to the ICJ.

One of Kerry’s tasks is to prepare Obama’s visit to the region in April. He will need all his diplomatic skills to negotiate his way around these seemingly intractable issues and ensure that the President is not trapped in a diplomatic minefield.