Seoul visit will complicate Obama's regional tour, especially Japan stop

Seoul and Tokyo are vying for US president's attentions, and he'll have to consider carefully the implications of accepting South Korean invitation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 4:12am

Japan and South Korea are jostling for the attentions of US President Barack Obama, who has announced that he will be visiting a number of Washington's allies in the Asia-Pacific region in late April.

Tokyo has already set aside April 20 to 23 for an official state visit. The last US president to have paid a state visit to Japan was Bill Clinton, 18 years ago.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants Obama to spend at least a couple of days in Tokyo on the grounds that there are substantive issues that need to be discussed.

These include increasing aggression by China in recent months, North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programmes, and progress in the relocation of US troops from the southern prefecture of Okinawa. The Trans-Pacific Partnership will be among the trade issues that the Japanese are keen to discuss.

The president would also be invited to meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and attend a state banquet at the Imperial Palace.

However, there are a number of other motives that might be put forward to explain Tokyo's desire for a full-blown state visit.

Prime Minister Abe would be likely to explain his reasons for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in December, an act that has caused a distinct cooling of the trans-Pacific friendship in the intervening weeks.

A state visit could also be seen as an opportunity to steal a diplomatic march on South Korea.

Seoul clearly sees Obama's scheduled Tokyo visit in that light and has formally requested that he also visit South Korea.

"I understand that the Japan visit was more or less settled, but this request from South Korea is causing problems for Tokyo because it would mean that it would reduce the amount of time the president could stay here," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told the South China Morning Post.

"Clearly, this is being fuelled by the ongoing problems between Seoul and Tokyo and if that relationship was better then I doubt whether South Korea would even have put in this bid," he said.

The Korean move puts Washington in a difficult position with its two most important allies in the region, he said.

Declining the offer from Seoul could have repercussions in a country that is the United States' military bulwark in mainland Asia. And South Korea has been showing signs in recent months of building closer diplomatic, trade and even defence ties with China.

A failure by Obama to visit South Korea might even suggest that Washington condones Abe's visit to Yasukuni and his hawkish line on defence and foreign policy.

Cutting back on the time spent in Tokyo, on the other hand, could have an equally serious impact on bilateral ties, Okumura said.

"There is the danger that Abe will become less cognisant of US concerns and less accommodating of Washington's needs in the region," he said. "The special relationship that links the two governments could become slightly less special."

Abe would attempt to brush the disappointment off, but Okumura says it would make his government "much less fond of the Obama administration and, more broadly, the Democrats."

And if Abe feels particularly slighted by his US counterpart, it might be sufficient to encourage him to make another trip to Yasukuni, Okumura added.

Abe invited the US leader to Japan during a meeting of the two leaders in Washington in February last year.

Fumio Kishida, the Japanese foreign minister, is due in Washington on Friday for talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, during which the schedule for the president's visit will be discussed.


Virginia votes for textbooks to refer to both 'Sea of Japan' and 'East Sea'

A Virginia House of Delegates panel has passed a bill to require future school textbooks to carry both the Japanese and South Korean governments' respective names for the waters between Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

The bill to teach students of the "East Sea", used by Seoul, in addition to the widely used "Sea of Japan", has stirred controversy, as the US government formally recognises only the latter.

The Washington Post questioned the move by the Virginia legislature, saying, "We doubt ... elected officials should be drawing textbook maps or writing lesson plans."

A plenary session of the Virginia lower house is expected to vote this week on the bill, which passed the chamber's education committee on Monday.

The bid is backed by a bipartisan group of state assembly members in Virginia, adjacent to the US capital and home to an increasing number of Korean Americans. The Virginia Senate has already passed its own bill to introduce the use of both sea names.

If the lower house clears the bill and Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe endorses it, textbooks adopted from July 1 would need to carry both names.