By Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau
TOKYO — President Barack Obama arrived here Wednesday to begin an eight-day tour of Asian allies designed to assure leaders that they have a strong U.S. backup at a time of rising tensions in the region.
Obama went directly to his task after landing in Tokyo, heading straight into a private dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the narrow wooden counter of a popular sushi restaurant in the busy Ginza shopping district. The leaders agreed in advance to put off their formal welcome ceremony and royal reception until after they had met one-on-one in a friendly, more casual setting.
Abe chose the spot — Sukiyabashi Jiro, a restaurant made famous in the recent documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
The sushi session opens a week of delicate diplomacy for Obama as he finally makes the Asia trip he canceled last fall because of a government shutdown in Washington. At the heart of his mission is a complicated task — to promise a strong U.S. commitment to its allies without tripping in their complicated web of disputes with China.
The web is complex, with fresh reminders arising while Obama made his way to the region. Authorities in Shanghai this week seized a Japanese ship over claims dating back to the 1930s, a move denounced by the Japanese government.
Meanwhile, Abe angered Beijing on Monday by sending a ritual offering to a shrine in Tokyo that critics say honors World War II criminals. Relations between the two countries are deeply colored by historic grievances.
The conflict presents a minor awkward moment as Obama tries to reassure key allies such as Japan and South Korea without provoking too much concern in China.
“We have an enormously important alliance with Japan,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said aboard Air Force One, before referring questions about the Yasukuni shrine to the State Department.
On the threat of North Korean nuclear tests this week, however, the White House was more definitive. Officials said they don’t know if stepped-up activity around that country’s nuclear sites portends an actual test to coincide with the president’s visit.
But they also indicated that they consider it a possibility.
“North Korea has a history of taking provocative actions,” Carney said. “We are always mindful of the possibility that such an action could be taken. … That is something that they have, unfortunately, done many times.”
By starting his eight-day Asian trip in Japan, Obama is directly confronting some of the biggest challenges to his regional foreign policy. His proposed Pacific Rim free-trade agreement has bogged down in tariff disputes with Japan, making it a top priority in his conversations with Abe.
Trade officials in the administration say they haven’t written off the possibility of progress on the agreement this week but they downplayed the possibility that it could work out while Obama is here.
Trade is not the only area where Obama’s credibility is being tested. As allies look for reassurance that they have American backup in their territorial disputes with China, budget cuts at the Pentagon have limited the flow of military resources to the region. Obama hopes to calm fears about U.S. resolve to maintain a strong presence in Asia.
Those conversations began informally with the Wednesday dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro, where owner Jiro Ono, 89, still prepares the sushi himself.
Aides said Abe thought the unconventional setting would be a warm way to open the visit and build trust with Obama before they begin more serious discussions. Obama has tried the same tactic with foreign leaders when they visit the U.S., famously taking then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev out to Ray’s Hell Burger, a popular D.C.-area restaurant.
Later in the day, Obama plans to meet with the Japanese emperor at the Imperial Palace before sitting down for another meeting with Abe.
Afterward, the leaders are expected to take questions at a news conference — the first of four, with four different leaders, that Obama plans to hold this week.
AFP Photo/Jim Watson