Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met US President Barack Obama in Washington. The two leaders reiterated their commitment to the US-Japan alliance, but Mr. Obama did not express strongly worded support for Japan in its maritime disputes with China. However, they pledged cooperation in putting pressure on North Korea and discussed Japanese entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks.
Full Text: Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan [White House, 22 Feb 2012]
Japan, China, and Territorial Disputes
Mr. Abe did raise the South China Sea and Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands disputes with Mr. Obama, but no concrete conclusion appears to have been reached. In a joint press conference, Mr. Abe said: "We agree that the very existence of the Japan-U.S. alliance is a stabilizing factor, which contributes to peace and stability of the region. We agreed that we would stay in close coordination with each other in dealing with such issues."
According to Chinese observers, Mr. Obama's backing of Mr. Abe on the maritime disputes with China was less enthusiastic than Japan had hoped. “Washington this time intentionally played down the issue, refraining from clearly throwing its support behind Tokyo,” said a commentary published by the Xinhua news agency.
Pressure on North Korea
However, both leaders agreed to cooperate in putting pressure on North Korea over the country's recent third nuclear test. Cooperation between the US and Japan over North Korea is a less controversial pledge that is not likely to be criticised by China.
Mr. Abe and Mr. Obama agreed on cooperating to seek harsher sanctions on North Korea via the UN, for example financial sanctions. Mr. Obama also reiterated support for Japan's efforts to address the decades-old abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
On trade, Mr. Obama assured Mr. Abe that Japan would need to pledge to remove all tariffs before joining talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
There had been concerns in Japan that the country would need to promise - at least in principle - to remove protections on key industries, before coming to the negotiating table. But in a joint statement, the United States offered reassurances that the actual areas for tariff reduction will be worked out in the course of the talks themselves. This kind of reassurance is unusual for trade talks, but potential entry into the TPP has been a particularly sensitive issue for Japanese politics.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is a free trade agreement that builds on a previous deal between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. Seven more countries from the Asia-Pacific and the Americas are negotiating to join the original four in a new wider agreement. There has been speculation for some time that Japan might join talks, and it has already attended negotiations as an observer.
Full Japanese participation in talks has thus far not materialised due to concerns about the implications of the agreement on key Japanese industries - though Mr. Abe's government supports entering the TPP.