By Mick Krever, CNN
Japan’s waters are full of riptides, but the country’s prime minister isn’t opposed to taking a dip.
U.S. President Barack Obama met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Thursday, the first stop on his high-stakes tour to four key American allies in Asia.
Notably absent from his list of destinations is China, whose huge economic growth, and the influence that comes with it, looms large over the region.
President Obama has reiterated his commitment to America’s security agreement with Japan, albeit while sticking as much as possible to dry, diplomatic language.
“Territories under the administration of Japan are covered under the treaty,” he said. “There's no shift in position, no red line; we're simply applying the treaty.”
If there’s apprehension in that statement, it is because Japan’s conservative Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has upended the commitment to pacifism that has defined post-World War II Japan.
Among Prime Minister Abe’s affronts, according to his detractors: Visiting a memorial to Japanese war dead, among whom are convicted war criminals; refusing to apologize for Japan’s use of sex slaves in wartime China and South Korea; and a commitment to rewrite Japan’s constitution, which places great limits on the country’s military.
“It would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China,” President Obama said, standing alongside Prime Minister Abe.
Many of Japan’s international disputes center on China, and that country’s detractors hardly give it a free pass.
“The reality is hardly a day goes by without us seeing attempts made by the Chinese side to send their official vessels into either contiguous or territorial waters of Japan,” Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Adviser to the Japanese Prime Minister, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
He is referring to the dispute over a group of uninhabited islands that Japan and China each claim as their own – they are ‘Senkaku’ to Japan and ‘Diaoyu’ to China.
“We should not tolerate any action to change the borders by using brute force,” Taniguchi said.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry responded to President Obama’s statement on the treaty with Japan by saying, “No matter what anyone says or does, it cannot change the basic reality that the Diaoyu Islands are China's inherent territory.”
Taniguchi told Amanpour that if the international community is sending that message to Russia, over its incursion in Crimea and alleged incursion into eastern Ukraine, “we should say the same to the Chinese, who have been attempting to do exactly that – not just around Japan, but also in the South China Sea.”
President Obama, while affirming his commitment to Japan, also warned that it would be a “profound mistake” for there to be continued escalation with China, rather than dialogue.
Both countries have new leaders, and both took office at the end of 2012. But nearly a year and a half into their respective tenures, the two have yet to meet.
Amanpour put it bluntly in a question to Taniguchi.
“The fact that the world’s third-largest and second-largest economies are not even talking to each other at this time is pretty worrying to all concerned,” Amanpour said.
“Prime Minister Abe and members of the cabinet are very much keen on having straight talks with their their counterparts in China,” Taniguchi said. “Slowly, gradually, attempts have been made from both sides, I believe, to break the barrier and see eye to eye.”
Seeing eye-to-eye might be hard; in the next breath, Taniguchi said “before anything happens,” he urged China to “stop provoking actions.”
The United States finds fault on both sides.
Responding to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni memorial in Tokyo, the U.S. Embassy in Japan released a statement that read, in part:
“Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors.”
“The problem is not that serious, I believe,” Taniguchi said; Prime Minister Abe is not trying to return the country to the 1930s.
Indeed, he told Amanpour, Japan’s economic problems – government debt and a shrinking population – mean it has little ability to expand its military budget.
(China, he was sure to add, has massively expanded its military.)
For “historical reasons,” he said, Japan had imposed a “strange interpretation” of its constitution, which bars the military from taking part in overseas operations.
“Everyone, every individual, and every nation” has the right to “act collectively with your like-minded peers,” he said.
All Japan is trying to do, he said, is “shoulder its own due responsibility” to global security.
“I think Shinzo Abe is doing exactly that.”