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US-Japan leaders discuss trade, China, and North Korea

President Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Friday. Major topics included Japan's joining a regional trade pact, North Korea's recent nuclear test, and a Japan-China territorial dispute.

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The TPP “is intended to be a comprehensive, ambitious, high-standard, 21st-century trade agreement,” says White House deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs Mike Froman. “Anybody who joins TPP would be expected to sign on to that goal.”

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But Abe has said that a pre-requisite to cut tariffs would be a TPP deal breaker for Japan. Currently 4 percent of the automobiles sold in Japan are imports, for example, while Japan’s powerful rice farmers reject opening up to more imports.

A diplomatic flap between Japan and China over words attributed to Abe in an interview before leaving Japan for the US served as a backdrop to the Obama-Abe discussion of the rising territorial disputes in the region.

Abe was quoted in the Washington Post Thursday as having said in a Tokyo interview with the US newspaper that the Chinese government has a “deeply ingrained need” to spar with Japan and other Asian neighbors as a way to kindle nationalist sentiments at home and to keep the public’s support.

China quickly blasted the comment and demanded an explanation, calling it “rare that a country’s leader brazenly distorts facts, attacks its neighbor and instigates antagonism between regional countries.

With Abe in Washington, Japanese officials in Tokyo sought to clarify the remarks, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stating, “There is no comment made by the prime minister as saying that China wants to clash…with other countries.” Instead, Mr. Suga said that Abe had made the point that Japan values “mutually beneficial relations with China based on strategic interests.” 

In the interview (a transcript of which the newspaper has on its website) Abe says China acts “by coercion or intimidation” towards Japan and other neighbors on the territorial issues, and then answers another question on the “maritime issue” with, “What is important, first of all, is that their leaders as well as business leaders recognize how deeply engrained this issue is.”

The US, which has a bilateral defense treaty with Japan, has said the treaty does apply in the case of the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, uninhabited outcroppings that Japan administers but which China claims and calls the Diaoyu. But the US also considers the dispute a bilateral sovereignty issue that the two countries should work out peacefully and diplomatically.

Some US-Japan analysts in Washington say the US stance is not strong enough in the face of an increasingly assertive China, and are looking for Obama to use Abe’s visit as an opportunity to bolster support for America’s partners in the region facing an aggressive regional giant.

“Washington’s message should be more pointed at countering Beijing’s actions,” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Abe, who only took office in December, was quick to reverse a 12-year trend and increase Japan’s defense spending, Mr. Klingner notes, and is moving to weaken restrictions on collective defense measures inscribed in Japan’s postwar constitution. Obama should acknowledge what is a positive move in the eyes of the US by expressing strong public support for the US-Japan security alliance, a move he says would resonate across the vast region Obama wants to make America’s 21st century priority.  

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