by Xinhua Writer Huang Yinjiazi
BEIJING, April 23 (Xinhua) -- President Barack Obama, priding himself on being "America's first Pacific President," starts his four-nation Asia tour in Japan late Wednesday, aiming to consolidate Washington's long-promised engagement with the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
It will be the first state visit to Japan, one of America's closest allies in Asia, by a U.S. president since 1996 when Japan hosted then U.S. President Bill Clinton. Obama will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The Japanese government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been hoping that Obama will demonstrate during his two-night stay that "Japan-U.S. alliance...is undoubtedly unshakable and firm." But this hope will be hard to satisfy.
A right-tilting Japan, with Abe at the helm, has been busy with whitewashing its wartime aggression against its neighbors, raising severe concerns in China and South Korea.
Meanwhile, Tokyo has also been engaged in intense territorial disputes with Beijing and Seoul.
Thus, on the contrary to Japan's claim that it wants to be a constructive partner for the United States in upholding peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, the rapidly right-leaning country has actually become a strategic liability for Washington.
On the eve of Obama's arrival in Japan, 146 Japanese lawmakers visited en masse on Tuesday the notorious Yasukuni Shrine which honors 14 Class-A war criminals in World War II along with Japan's war dead, adding difficulties to Obama's already challenging seven-day Asian tour.
The visits followed an offering to the Tokyo shrine by Abe on Monday. Although having decided not to pay tribute in person this time, the prime minister dedicated a "masakaki" tree.
It is seen as an obvious attempt to play both ways -- avoiding further embarrassing Obama diplomatically and at the same time appeasing right-leaning forces domestically.
Japan has apologized for its wartime brutality on several occasions, but official acts such as visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and revising history textbooks to whitewash Japan's wartime atrocities have efffectively undercut its sincerity.
Regional countries, especially China and South Korea, are also particularly angered as Japan repeatedly refuses to accept the responsibility for sexual slavery during the war. Most of the sex slaves were women from China and Korea.
Japanese politicians' lack of sincerity in acknowledging its past brutal aggression have severely hurt the feelings of its victims, strained Japan's already fraught ties with Asian nations, and compounded their suspicion of Japan's intentions.
The latest shrine visits and offering have placed Obama, whose administration called Abe's shrine visit in December disappointing, on a tightrope.
Silence over the provocation will not only put a dent to Washington's moral authority around the region, but also land the U.S. president in a delicate position as he will later travel to South Korea, a country that suffered greatly from Japanese aggression in WWII.
Washington is also worried that the provocation will further strain regional ties.
"We encourage Japan to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue," a State Department spokesperson said Monday, commenting on the shrine visits.