(Asahi: November 20, 2015 – p. 3)
By Jun Okudera in Manila; Kotaro Ono
At their summit meeting in Manila on Nov. 19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed to cooperate more closely with regard to the South China Sea, where China is building artificial islands. While the dispatch of Self-Defense Force (SDF) ships is not expected for the time being, Abe’s position on future SDF operations there is unclear. Obama touched on the recent Japan-China-ROK summit at the meeting, which is an indication that improvement of Japan’s relations with its neighbors remains an issue.
Abe voiced Japan’s support for the U.S. forces’ “Freedom of Navigation Operation” in the South China Sea at the summit. The two leaders confirmed closer cooperation between the two countries in this sea area.
Obama is focusing on “demonstrating U.S. leadership in Asia in the political and security spheres” on his tour of Asia, according to National Security Adviser Susan Rice. The briefing on the promotion of the policy of rebalancing to Asia the U.S. government released for this trip also expressed “concern” about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere, with China’s maritime advance in mind, as well as human rights issues.
Daniel Krintenbrink, National Security Council Asia director, stated before the Japan-U.S. summit on Nov. 19: “We hope that our allies and friends will raise their voices in support of the U.S. in building a rule-based order in Asia.” He pointed out that it is important for the U.S. and the Asian countries to be united on the South China Sea issue, the region’s common concern.
The U.S. is not asking Japan to send SDF ships within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands China is building. For now, it expects Japan to help the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries improve their maritime security capability by, for instance, providing patrol boats.
Nevertheless, Abe stated on Nov. 19 that he will “consider” SDF operations “based on an assessment of the impact of the situation (in this area) on Japan’s security.” This could be interpreted as leaving the option of future deployment open.
When asked to explain what the Prime Minister meant, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko stressed that the Abe “meant just what he said – nothing more, nothing less.”
Obama stated at the beginning of the Japan-U.S. summit: “I am grateful for (Prime Minister Abe’s) efforts to build deeper regional understanding. The Japan-China-ROK summit was particularly important.”
Obama also mentioned Abe’s summit meetings with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and ROK President Park Geun-hye held on the sidelines of the trilateral summit.
In response, Abe said: “I am grateful for the compliment on the trilateral summit.” He also briefed Obama on the Japan-China and Japan-ROK summits. He explained that he “engaged in a constructive exchange of views” with Park, and that “holding a direct dialogue without preconditions was good.”
Improvement of relations between the U.S.’s allies Japan and the ROK is of particular importance to the U.S. in dealing with North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and missiles and the South China Sea issue. Obama stressed at the summit: “With regard to South Korea, we strongly support dialogue with President Park. Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation is indispensable for responding to the North Korea issues.” He hinted that Japan must first improve relations with its neighbors in order to promote Japan-U.S. cooperation on a global scale.