* Delicate diplomacy as Obama prepares to change security
* Disputes between allies Seoul and Tokyo awkward for U.S.
* Hawkish Japan politicians complicate alliance management
By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 The United States sent its
top Asian diplomacy and security officials to South Korea and
Japan to calm tensions between two U.S. allies whose squabbling
has frustrated efforts to deal with a troublesome North Korea
and an increasingly assertive China.
The high-powered delegation from the White House, Pentagon
and State Department departed on Monday and will be visiting the
region shortly after the election of a new nationalist-leaning
Japanese government in December and before Seoul inaugurates a
new president in February.
Washington hopes South Korea and Japan can put a lid on
spats over history and territory stemming from Japan's 1910-45
occupation of Korea. U.S. officials also seek to reassure Tokyo
as it confronts almost daily challenges from China over which
has sovereignty of disputed islets in a separate, more
dangerous, territorial row with Beijing.
The long-simmering disputes erupted anew last year, plunging
Tokyo's ties with Seoul and Beijing to troubling lows and
casting a cloud over the President Barack Obama's signature
policy for East Asia - rebalancing security forces in the region
- in part to cope with a surging China.
"We want to see the new Japanese government, the new South
Korean government, all of the countries in Northeast Asia
working together and solving any outstanding issues, whether
they are territorial, whether they're historic, through
dialogue," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said
Troubles between Asia's second and fourth biggest economies
are frustrating to Washington at a time when a defiant North
Korea has tested a long-range rocket and may be poised to
conduct its third nuclear test.
CLEARING TENSIONS FROM 2012
In one of the final acts before Obama brings in a new
national security team for his second term, Assistant Secretary
of State Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark
Lippert and Daniel Russel, the National Security Council senior
director for Asian affairs, will meet with officials in Seoul
U.S. officials regularly meet counterparts from the two
countries, which have been American allies since the 1950s and
together host most of the 80,000 U.S. troops in Asia. But the
antagonistic nationalism that flared up in Asian capitals last
year makes this trip anything but routine.
The Japan-South Korea dispute intensified in August when
President Lee Myung-bak became the first South Korean leader to
set foot on islands claimed by both countries but controlled by
Seoul. They are known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
Lee's visit and his call for Emperor Akihito to go beyond
earlier expressions of "deepest regrets" for Japan's colonial
rule followed South Korea's last-minute cancellation of a
bilateral agreement with Japan on sharing intelligence.
The troubles between Seoul and Tokyo coincided with a
standoff between Japan and China over another cluster of islets,
known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
The dispute sparked violent anti-Japanese protests in China
last summer that damaged Japanese businesses in China. Last
year's protests have been followed by a consumer boycott and
repeated incursions by Chinese boats and planes into seas and
airspace around the islands, which are controlled by Japan.
The ships and aircraft that have appeared to challenge
Japanese control of those waters and force Tokyo to end its
refusal to acknowledge that a territorial dispute exists have
been Chinese government vessels. So far China has stopped short
of sending military vessels into disputed areas.
But analysts warn of the potential for miscalculation. Any
Japan-China conflict could embroil the United States, which says
that the islets are covered under the U.S.-Japan security treaty
- even though Washington takes no position on the sovereignty
ABE: NATIONALISM OR PRAGMATISM?
Another understated aim of the U.S. mission to Tokyo this
week is to convince Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to step
away from some of the more nationalist policies of the platform
on which he campaigned and won office on last month.
Washington is particularly concerned about Abe's previous
calls to revise or rescind a landmark 1995 apology for Japan's
wartime aggression and 1993 statement acknowledging an official
Japanese role in the recruiting of tens of thousands of mostly
South Korean "comfort women" to serve troops during World War
Such actions would anger Asian nations that suffered from
Japan's militarism, further complicating both U.S. attempts to
manage ties between its allies in the region and relations with
China, which also is ushering in new leadership in March.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said last week that
Abe would stand by the 1995 apology. Although Abe packed his
Cabinet with politicians who hold extremely revisionist views of
history, analysts are predicting policies will be pragmatic,
with a focus on reviving the economy.
"The Abe administration basically will not touch foreign
diplomacy and security affairs before the Upper House election"
in July, former Vice Minister for Defense Motohiro Oono of the
opposition Democratic Party of Japan told a think tank panel in
Washington last week.
Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the conservative Heritage
Foundation, said recent statements from Abe have been "suitably
nuanced." He said during Abe's 2006-7 tenure as prime minister,
he "defied many of the same predictions by maintaining and even
improving Japan's relations with its neighbors."
Abe's gestures to neighbors include sending an envoy to meet
South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye; announcing that his
first overseas trip since winning office will be to Indonesia,
Vietnam and Thailand; and offering to supply the Philippines
with 10 coast guard vessels and communications equipment to help
Manila in its territorial dispute with China.