WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged on Monday to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance, the latest effort to project unity between Washington and its Asian partners as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
The two leaders put their stamp of approval on a long-stalled agreement to sharply reduce the U.S. military presence on the island of Okinawa, which could help ease the way for Obama’s strategy of dispersing U.S. forces around the western Pacific.
But the show of solidarity between Obama and Noda at the White House was overshadowed by what was shaping up as a tense diplomatic standoff between the United States and China over a Chinese dissident believed to be under U.S. protection in Beijing.
Underscoring the sensitivity over the case, Obama maintained his administration’s silence on Chen Guangcheng’s fate when asked about it at a joint news conference. But he went on to press China to improve its human rights record, a longstanding irritant in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
The Obama administration used a visit by Noda and meetings between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and their counterparts from the Philippines to showcase efforts to forge closer security ties with Asian allies.
Starting with a trip late last year, Obama has touted a “pivot” toward the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region widely seen as a U.S. effort to reassure nervous allies there of the U.S. commitment as China flexes its economic and military muscle.
“We have agreed to a new joint vision to guide our alliance and help shape the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” Obama said after Oval Office talks with Noda.
Though a joint statement contained few specifics, Obama cast it as a part of a broader security regional effort he unveiled on a his Asia-Pacific trip in November. Closer military ties are also being forged with the Philippines, Australia and Singapore.
Clinton reaffirmed U.S. commitment to Philippine security under a 60-year-old treaty of mutual defense and used a standoff between Manila and Beijing over a disputed shoal in the Spratly Islands to stake out a claim of U.S. interests in the region.
“As a Pacific power we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and the unimpeded lawful commerce across our sea lanes,” she said, urging the countries to resolve their dispute diplomatically.
The United States and the Philippines were looking at ways to deepen their defense relationship and help Manila develop what Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario called a “minimum credible defense posture.” The Philippine military is seen as one of the weakest among developing countries in the region.
Obama administration officials have left little doubt that they want to show Americans they are working to face down a rising competitive threat from China, which has become a key issue at home as the president seeks re-election in November.
But Obama also sought on Monday to avoid further roiling the diplomatic waters. “All of our actions are not designed to in any way contain China,” Obama said of his talks with Noda, who leads the world’s third largest economy.
“But they are designed to ensure that they (China) are part of a broader international community in which rules, norms are respected, in which all countries can prosper and succeed,” Obama said.
Obama and Noda presented a unified front against North Korea over its recent failed rocket launch and concerns that it may test a nuclear device soon.
The two leaders met just days after the two countries announced a revised agreement on streamlining the U.S. military presence on Okinawa that will shift 9,000 Marines from the southern Japanese island to Guam and other Asia-Pacific sites.
The new plan helps the allies work around the central but still-unresolved dispute over moving the Futenma air base from a crowded part of Okinawa to a new site that has vexed relations for years.
Under the agreement, 5,000 Marines will go to Guam and the rest to other sites such as Hawaii and Australia.
The agreement includes a $3.1 billion cash commitment from Japan for the move to Guam as well as for developing joint training ranges on Guam and on Tinian and Pagan in the U.S.-controlled Northern Mariana Islands.
Snags over Okinawa had raised questions about the viability of the Obama administration’s strategy of shifting U.S. forces from other regions to the Asia-Pacific to deal with nuclear saber-rattling by North Korea, the rapid military buildup of China and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Obama welcomed the deal as serving the ”broad-based interests of our alliance as a whole, and Noda said it would help the two countries “step up bilateral security and defense cooperation in a creative manner.”
Washington wants Japan to loosen restrictions, enshrined in its largely pacifist post-World War Two constitution, on Japanese troop deployment outside its borders.
The Okinawa issue had been a major political headache at home for Noda, Japan’s sixth prime minister in six years. He is struggling to boost an economy that been anemic for a generation and was hit hard by last year’s earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster.
Additional reporting by Samson Reiny, Laura MacInnis and Alister Bull; Editing by Vicki Allen