China likely to be focus of Abe-Obama talks

Posted at 04/15/14 6:39 PM

TOKYO - China's military buildup and increased territorial claims, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and other strategic developments in East Asia are likely to draw attention during an April 24 summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama in Tokyo.

In the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month, which major democracies have condemned for posing a serious challenge to the rule of law around the world, experts are calling on Abe and Obama to send a clear message that the two allies will never tolerate China's attempt by force or coercive measures to undermine Japan's control over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

"Japan and the United States need to produce a strong, clear statement that we would not like to see forceful, unilateral action on the part of China to change the status quo" over the islands, claimed as Diaoyu by China and Tiaoyutai by Taiwan, Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister, said.

Japan has drawn parallels between Russia's action in Ukraine and China's perceived challenge to the status quo in the East China through measures such as the unilateral declaration in November of an air defense identification zone overlapping Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands and repeated intrusion by Chinese patrol ships into Japanese waters around the uninhabited islets.

A source involved in Japan-U.S. relations, however, said that even if Abe and Obama issue a post-summit document, it would probably not single out China so as not to further escalate tensions with the country.

In a move to ensure deterrence against Beijing, Tanaka, who is now chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, said in a briefing last week that he would like Obama to "make a clear statement" that the Senkakus fall under the bilateral security treaty, which obliges the United States to defend Japan.

Experts say policymakers in Tokyo have no doubt about U.S. commitment to defending the islands under the treaty, but that some quarters of the government are concerned about China's push for building what it calls a "new type of major country relations" with the United States.

If such relations involve Washington's respect of "core interests" claimed by Beijing, it would be a problem for Tokyo because the scope of such interests is "constantly expanding" to possibly cover the Senkaku Islands, Tanaka said. "That's why I say let us be more transparent in the trilateral relationship between Japan, the United States and China."

In an April 8 meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Beijing, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said the two countries "should...respect each other's core interests and major concerns," according to Xinhua News Agency.

Chang urged the two countries' militaries to "effectively manage crisis and risks, properly resolve major obstacles and differences, so as to push forward the healthy and stable development of their new type of military ties" within the framework of building a new type of major power relations, Xinhua said.

China's growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas makes the country look like an "irresponsible game-changer" rather than the "responsible stakeholder" that the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush encouraged it to become in the international system, according to Akio Takahara, a professor of Chinese politics and international relations in East Asia at the University of Tokyo.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has been asserting control over the land features and waters encompassed by its U-shaped "nine-dash line," which skirts the coastlines of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

China rejects U.S. intervention in disputes in the sea, all or part of which is claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Wielding its rising clout, Beijing has been calling for bilateral negotiations with other claimants, rather than multilateral diplomacy, in addressing the issue.

When Obama makes a four-nation Asian tour that will also take him to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, "It will be extremely important that the United States issue a message that regional powers including China must maintain the rule-based order in East Asia that they have observed since the end of World War II," Takahara said in a recent forum at the Tokyo Foundation.

In the summit, Obama is likely to back Abe's initiative in changing the government's interpretation of the Constitution to allow Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense -- or defending an ally under armed attack -- as part of Abe's policy of proactively contributing to peace based on the principle of international cooperation, according to a senior Foreign Ministry official.

The two leaders are also expected to reaffirm trilateral cooperation with South Korea in dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development, especially when Pyongyang threatens to conduct a "new form of nuclear test," the official said.

Obama is likely to support the Abe government's efforts to address North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. The government is planning to arrange a meeting between the president and the relatives of abductees during his April 23-25 visit to Japan.

Moreover, it is thought that the leaders will call for advancing Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations involving 12 economies, while Abe is expected to refer to Japan's magnetically levitated train system in the hope it will be introduced in the United States, possibly between Washington and Baltimore, in the future, another senior official said.