Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Obama's Japan visit unlikely to be fruitful

By Dennis Hickey (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-23 06:57

On Oct 3, 2013, the White House announced that President Barack Obama had cancelled plans to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting because of the US government shutdown. Ever since the US administration had been crafting plans for Obama to visit Asia.

On Wednesday, Air Force One will land in Tokyo. Japan is the US president's first destination on an East Asian tour that will also take him to the Republic of Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia. Obama's trip has sparked discussions for obvious reasons. Most of the speculation focuses on his anticipated talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At the last moment, Obama's stay in Japan was extended to three days (from the originally planned two) with Tokyo announcing that he would visit as a state guest - an arrangement that means a lot photo-ops.

Trade will be high on Obama's agenda. The US administration had hoped to use October's APEC meeting to advance progress on the US-led trade initiative known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But few anticipated any sort of breakthrough in negotiations. Given the domestic situation in Japan and some other countries, forward movement was considered unlikely. This has not changed.

When Obama meets with Abe on April 24, the two leaders are expected to pledge to continue to pursue efforts to make the TPP a reality. But an agreement remains elusive - perhaps impossible. Japan's agricultural sector is among the most protected in the world. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates, Japan's farmers derive roughly half of their incomes from subsidies and price supports (compared with one-tenth in the US). Abe will argue that high import tariffs must be maintained on five "sacred" agricultural categories - rice, wheat, dairy, sugar, and beef and pork products.

Since no one expects a breakthrough in economic ties, attention has focused on the implications that Obama's visit might have on the US-Japan security relationship. Japan is considered by many as an "anchor" of American defense strategy in the Western Pacific. The US has more than 50,000 troops on the home islands and Okinawa, and Yokosuka serves as a headquarters for the Seventh Fleet. But Abe wants more.

High-ranking US officials have reassured Tokyo that, while Washington does not recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands, Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty commits America to the defense of territories "administered" by Japan, including the disputed islands in the East China Sea. According to Japanese media reports, Abe is hoping for an identical or stronger commitment from Obama. Some are dreaming of a more confrontational statement - perhaps a new foreign policy "doctrine" aimed at "containing" China. This is unlikely.

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