TOKYO – President Barack Obama is seeking to reassure Japanese leaders today that he can deliver on his security and economic pledges to Asia even as the crisis in Ukraine demands U.S. attention and resources elsewhere.
The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia is threatening to overshadow Obama’s four-country Asia swing that began Wednesday. He may decide during the trip whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow, a step that would signal the failure of an international agreement aimed at defusing the crisis.
But at least publicly, Obama will try to keep the focus on his Asia agenda, which includes reaffirming his commitment to a defense treaty with Japan, making progress on a stalled trans-Pacific trade agreement and finalizing a deal to modestly increase the American military footprint in the Philippines.
Obama steered clear of more sensitive topics like the trade and China tensions as he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for a morning meeting at Tokyo’s Akasaka Palace. Instead, Obama spoke of a U.S.-Japanese bond that transcends its military alliance.
“My visit here I think once again represents my deep belief that a strong U.S.-Japan relationship is not only good for our countries, but the world,” Obama said.
Abe, speaking through a translator, said he and Obama would be discussing the future of the “indispensable and irreplaceable” alliance. He and Obama planned to answer questions from reporters after their meeting.
Obama began his day with a call on Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, a lush park-like complex surrounded by modern skyscrapers where he was greeted by a military honor guard and children holding U.S. and Japanese flags. After taking in the scene, the president, emperor and empress walked along a maze of red carpet into the palace for a private meeting, with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and other aides trailing behind.
The president told the emperor that the last time they met, he did not have any gray hairs. “You have a very hard job,” the emperor replied.
Later today, Obama planned to return to the Imperial Palace for a state dinner. He also plans to visit the Meiji Shrine, which honors the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from over two centuries of isolation to become a world power.
Obama’s stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines serve as something of a do-over after he canceled a visit to Asia last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown.