War shrine rituals cast shadow over Obama's visit

Visit by Japanese MPs, which stokes regional tensions, may be seen as snub

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama arrives here today on the first stop of a four-nation Asian tour aimed partly at easing regional tensions but finds himself amid renewed discord over tributes by Japanese leaders to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

Yesterday, about 150 lawmakers, including one minister and several deputy ministers, prayed at the shrine which is holding its annual spring festival. Eighty per cent of the group come from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Their visit to the shrine - regarded by neighbouring countries as a monument to Japan's wartime aggression - could be seen as a snub against Washington, which last December publicly expressed "disappointment" when Mr Abe visited the shrine despite repeated advice not to, from the United States.

He stayed away from the shrine this time but made an offering on Monday, drawing sharp rebukes from Beijing and Seoul.

In April last year, 169 lawmakers and four ministers visited the shrine while Mr Abe also made an offering, causing the South Korean foreign minister to axe a trip to Tokyo and the cancellation of a trilateral meeting between the finance ministers of China, South Korea and Japan, in India.

Keeping the peace between Tokyo and Seoul - Washington's two closest allies in the region - is one of Mr Obama's headaches, but on which he made some headway at a trilateral meeting in The Hague last month.

Preventing Japan and China from entering into armed conflict over a territorial feud is another.

But Japanese officials insist the Yasukuni issue will not impact negatively Mr Obama's visit.

Soon after the American leader arrives, he and Mr Abe will have a private dinner at a well-known sushi restaurant in Tokyo's ritzy Ginza district, where they will mull over pending issues ahead of their summit tomorrow, from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations to upgrading bilateral security guidelines. A major breakthrough in the TPP talks appears unlikely at the moment.

Tomorrow, Mr Obama will visit the Meiji Shrine in central Tokyo in another apparent attempt by Washington to tell Mr Abe to pick an alternative site at which to pray for Japan's war dead. Last October, with a similar motive in mind, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel laid wreaths at the Chidorigafuchi national cemetery, some 500m from Yasukuni.

Mr Obama will stay overnight tomorrow before travelling to Seoul on Friday. Washington had reportedly wanted only a one-night stopover in Tokyo for Mr Obama. But Tokyo lobbied hard to elevate it to a two-night, three-day official state visit, the first by an American president in 18 years.

Faced with Chinese maritime manoeuvres around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islets claimed by both Japan and China, Mr Abe needs the support of Mr Obama in his effort to counter Beijing, say observers.

According to the leading Yomiuri Shimbun daily, Mr Abe hopes to issue a strongly worded joint statement following his talks with the American leader that will, in a veiled warning to China, declare that their two countries will not condone the use of force to alter the status quo in the region.

But Washington will want to strike a balance. While it seeks to boost security ties with Tokyo, it also sees China as a strategic economic partner and perhaps also a future political partner.