by Jon Day, Liu Tian
TOKYO, April 24 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday agreed to continue to underpin the strong alliance between the two countries and that the special U.S.-Japan relationship represents the corner stone of future peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking at a joint press conference following a summit between them, Abe and Obama confirmed their continued global partnership was essential to the region, with Abe stating that Japan espouses its role alongside the U.S. as a global contributor to peace through "active pacifism."
On issues of security and including the review of the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, wide-ranging collaboration will be promoted the two leaders resolved, and with regard to the relocating of the U.S. Futenma airbase within Okinawa, the leaders said that steady progress was being made.
Abe said that he hoped that relations with the United States would continue to become more favorable than ever before and Obama, on his third trip here as president, said that his country would continue to be a Pacific nation and he would prioritize leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The remarks by Abe and Obama widely fell in line with political pundits' expectations," Laurent Sinclair, a Japan- based pacific affairs research analyst told Xinhua after the joint conference.
"As expected, the issues spanned global security, the realignment of forces in the region, the modernization of defense capabilities in the region including those of Japan and the advocation of increased dialogue between Japan and its neighbors to lessen heightened tensions in the regions over historical and territorial issues," Sinclair said.
But the thorny Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement was very much in the spotlight Thursday as 11th hour negotiations between the two sides ahead of Obama's arrival made little progress, as the negotiations become evermore protracted, the pacific affairs expert noted.
He said that Obama didn't mince his words however when he urged Abe to remove trade barriers that are currently protecting its five "sacred sectors" and allow the United States access to these markets, along with Japan's guarded automobile market.
With Japan reluctant to abolish tariffs on its rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar industries and TPP minister Akira Amari stating that both sides were still in a " stalemate" over key items and that "fairly big gaps" remain between the two sides, Obama stated unequivocally that creating more economic and employment opportunities for American industries in the region was his "bottom line."
Japan could play a key role as the second largest economy in the TPP region in the coming century, Obama said, but urged bold steps from Abe to lean on parliament as well as local constituencies to make the necessary contingencies for the negotiations to move forward.
But the failure of the two countries to see eye-to-eye on a number of issues pertaining to the deal prevented them from officially announcing a broad bilateral agreement for the pact and, as such, a highly-anticipated joint announcement of an accord between the two leaders could not be made Thursday, observers said.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman who is joining Obama on his four-nation Asian tour, and Amari have both cited there being a "considerable distance between the two sides," and said that working level talks will continue ahead of the next TPP ministerial meeting pegged for late May in Singapore.
"Thornier issues were also discussed Thursday, but neither leader would be drawn into comments beyond stock statements already given by Tokyo and Washington pertaining to the Ukraine situation, the DPRK's nuclear activities and tensions in the East China Sea," political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu told Xinhua.
"A late question by a reporter to Abe regarding his controversial visit to the war-linked Yasukuni shrine last December, as Cabinet members and lawmakers this week descended on the shrine prior to Obama's visit for Yasukuni's spring festival, drawing hard criticism from Japan's neighbors, may have better been directed at Obama," Muramatsu said.
Washington, in an unprecedented move, admonished Abe's homage to Yasukuni, which enshrines 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals convicted by an international tribunal, calling the move "disappointing" and "unnecessarily provocative. "
"But Abe partly swerved the question, stating that while Japan was responsible for war time atrocities, his administration follows previous government's stances on the matter and since the end of World War II said that Japan has sought to be a nation that embraces peace and part of his visit to the shrine was to renew the pledge that 'Japan shall never again wage war,'" said Muramatsu.
"But while Japan may not wage war, the nation, under Abe, is certainly gearing up in terms of military hardware, personnel, new defense and arms legislation and potential Constitutional amendments to allow the right to collective self-defense, to be an extremely 'active' pacifist nation," the political analyst said.