Syria

Almost All of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Have Now Been Removed

German Company To Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons
A worker stands next to a machine that will be used to destroy chemical weapons from Syria during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. Nigel Treblin—Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama says the removal of "87%" of Syria's chemical arsenal without the use of force can be credited to U.S. leadership, even as Syrian opposition groups report the use of chlorine gas by the Assad regime in several attacks last month

Syria is close to having shipped out all of its chemical weapons, U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday.

“Eighty-seven percent of Syria’s chemical weapons have already been removed, ” Obama said, speaking at a joint press conference in Tokyo, where he is on a state visit.

“That is a consequence of U.S. leadership. The fact that we didn’t have to fire a missile to get that accomplished is not a failure to uphold international norms, it’s a success,” the President said, stressing that it’s not a “complete success until we have the last 13% out.”

Obama’s remarks followed Tuesday’s statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the group monitoring the destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons, which said that the June 30 deadline for the complete removal of chemical weapons was within reach.

“We hope that the remaining two or three consignments are delivered quickly to permit destruction operations to get underway in time to meet the mid-year deadline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons,” H.E. Mr. Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of OPCW, said.

The U.S. President’s comments also come after accusations by Syrian opposition groups that the Assad regime used chlorine gas against civilians in several attacks the last month. American, British and French government officials have said that there are “strong indications” of gas having been used.

Afghanistan

Afghan Security Guard Kills Three Foreigners at a Kabul Hospital

An Afghan security guard opened fire on three foreign doctors working at a hospital in the Afghan capital, before being shot and wounded in the ensuing melee

Three foreign doctors working for an American charity in Afghanistan were killed in Kabul on Thursday after being gunned down by a local security guard at a hospital.

The assault occurred at the Cure International Hospital on Thursday morning, according to the New York Times.

The nationalities of the doctors have yet to be officially released by Afghan authorities. The security guard behind the attack was reportedly shot and injured during the melee.

The assault comes weeks after an Afghan police officer opened fire on two AP journalists in the eastern city of Khost in early April. AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed during the shooting and correspondent Kathy Gannon was injured.

[NYT]

Japan

Obama To Japan: Yes, the U.S. Will Defend You

JAPAN-US-DIPLMACY
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following a bilateral press conference at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on April 24, 2014. Obama told a press conference in Japan that islands at the center of a bitter territorial dispute with China are covered by a defense treaty that would oblige Washington to act if they were attacked. JIM WATSON—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. President is kicking off his four-nation Asia trip with a state visit to Japan, where he has said, for the first time in a press conference, that islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Japan and China come under Washington's security pact with Tokyo

Just how low would he go? In Nov. 2009, as Barack Obama shook hands in Tokyo with Japan’s Emperor Akihito, the U.S. President bowed his head deeply in the Japanese tradition. The deferential greeting kicked up a mini-firestorm back in the U.S., with right-wing Americans chastising Obama for somehow submitting to a foreign power.

On April 24, Obama, on an Asian tour that was delayed by last fall’s U.S. government shutdown, again met with Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. No deep bows were in evidence this time. Instead, Obama used the morning meeting at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace for a little levity, joking that in the intervening four years, his hair had turned gray. “You have a very hard job,” the Emperor responded.

Obama is kicking off his four-nation Asia trip with a state visit to Japan, where he is underscoring the allies’ security ties and pushing for a trade pact that faces hurdles in both Washington and Tokyo. While the President will not stop in China this time around, Beijing’s growing regional footprint will surely be a matter of discussion in all the countries he will visit: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. All of these nations are currently involved in territorial disputes with China, mostly over tiny uninhabited bits of rock in contested waters.

One of the conflicts involves islets in the East China Sea that Japan administers but to which China lays claim. Since the Japanese government nationalized some of the outcrops in 2012, maritime and aerial confrontations between Beijing and Tokyo have increased significantly. The U.S. says that it does not take a stand on who actually owns the scattering of rocks, called the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Mandarin. But speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo Thursday, the U.S. President for the first time acknowledged in press conference that the disputed islands are covered by the security treaty that commits the U.S. to defending Japan should it come under attack.

Japan’s postwar constitution, which was written by the occupying Americans, emphasizes a commitment to peace from a former imperial aggressor that marched across Asia during the first half of the last century. The charter precludes Japan from possessing a normal military, and it has never been amended — a rare, untouched document among democracies today.

The proudly patriotic Abe, who has a rare electoral mandate after the country cycled through six leaders in as many years, wants to change the constitution (or at least the interpretation of it) in order to enable the establishment a more conventional army. Specifically, he wants to allow for what’s called “collective self-defense,” in which Japan can help defend an ally under attack, like a U.S. ship from a North Korean missile, for example. Local polls, however, show that many Japanese aren’t convinced by Abe’s wish for constitutional revision.

As the Pacific’s policeman, the U.S. has helped keep regional peace for decades. Obama has made clear his intentions to rebalance American foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific. But with regional tensions increasing, amid China’s more assertive defense of its territorial claims, a little back-up from an Asian ally wouldn’t be unwelcomed by America. Under Abe, Japan’s defense spending has begun to increase slightly after an 11-year lull. While Japan can only form a defensive armed forces, its military spending is the world’s sixth largest. In remarks before Abe and Obama’s bilateral meeting on Thursday morning, the Japanese Prime Minister noted that “the alliance between these two nations is indispensable and irreplaceable as the foundation for a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.”

On Thursday afternoon, Obama will visit Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, a top tourist site and sacred spot in Japan’s indigenous Shinto faith. Two days before, another North American made headlines by visiting an altogether more controversial Shinto place of worship in Tokyo. Canadian pop star Justin Bieber posted pictures online of his stop at Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of 2.5 million Japanese war dead are enshrined, among them top war criminals responsible for Japan’s military expansion across Asia. The Yasukuni complex also houses a war history museum that downplays atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers. Bieber’s visit earned him the wrath of Chinese fans, and he quickly apologized for causing any offense.

Last December, on the one-year anniversary of his latest stint as PM, Abe became the first Japanese leader since 2006 to visit Yasukuni. The pilgrimage earned him an expression of “disappointment” from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. (At the Thursday press conference with Obama, Abe explained that his visit was to honor the war dead in general, not war criminals.) On April 22, one day before Obama arrived in Japan, nearly 150 Japanese legislators visited Yasukuni, spurring a furious response from Chinese and South Korean officials.

Emperor Akihito’s father, Hirohito (known in Japan as the Showa Emperor), used to pay homage at Yasukuni. But he stopped visiting after 1978 when 14 top war criminals’ names were added to the shrine’s honor rolls. Emperor Akihito has not paid his respects at Yasukuni, either — a pointed absence by a figure venerated in state Shinto, a version of the faith that focuses heavily on imperial worship.

Obama will meet with Emperor Akihito two more times during his Japan visit, once at a Thursday dinner and another time at a farewell on Friday before the U.S. President heads to South Korea. It’s a pretty safe bet that Obama won’t be breaking out any low bows at either occasion.

Ukraine

Further Sanctions on Russia Are ‘Teed Up’ Obama Says

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a point next to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a joint news conference in the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference in the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo April 24, 2014. He said that fresh sanctions on Russia were imminent Larry Downing—Reuters

The war of words between the White House and the Kremlin continued to escalate on Thursday when President Obama said new sanctions were just days away, and Moscow claimed the U.S. was fomenting unrest in Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the implementation of a new round of sanctions against Russia might be only a matter of days, “not weeks”, away and noted that such measures were already “teed up”.

He was speaking at a press conference during a visit to Tokyo.

“We continue to see men taking over buildings, harassing folks who are disagreeing with them … and we haven’t seen Russia discouraging that,” said Obama, referring to the seizure of public buildings in several towns and cities in east Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists. He also went on to criticize the Kremlin for failing to abide by the “spirit or letter” of an accord hammered out on the Ukraine crisis in Switzerland last Thursday.

The threat of new penalties comes after the U.S. expanded targeted sanctions against aides and business leaders with ties to Russian President Vladmir Putin late last month, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the U.S. of colluding with Kiev and failing to hold up its end of the Geneva deal.

“I don’t have any reasons not to believe that the Americans are running the show in a very close way,” said Lavrov during an interview with Russia Today on Wednesday.

During the course of the interview, Lavrov accused the White House of focusing on unrest in eastern Ukraine but failing to put pressure on Kiev to disarm the armed nationalist group Right Sector, which Moscow claims engaged pro-Russia groups at Easter in a deadly skirmish that killed at least three people. Kiev has dismissed the skirmish the work of provocateurs.

Lavrov went on to suggest that further attacks against ethnic Russians in the region could ignite military action from the Kremlin. “Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” said Lavrov. An estimated 40,000 Russian troops are massed near the Ukrainian border and poised for battle, according to NATO’s high command.

Aviation

The Submarine Search for the Missing Jet Is Almost Done

Bluefin-21
Crew aboard the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Shield move the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle into position for deployment in the southern Indian Ocean to look for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370, April 14, 2014. U.S. Navy/Reuters

The submarine has nearly finished combing the southern Indian Ocean where Flight MH370 is thought to have crashed — with no results

No wreckage from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been spotted by the unmanned submarine currently scouring the Indian Ocean seabed, despite 90% of the focused search area already having been examined and a search of the remaining fraction underway.

On Thursday, Bluefin-21 was deployed around 1,000 miles northwest of Perth, but the U.S.-made submersible has found nothing of interest.

Also on Thursday, yet another possible clue got discounted, as a metal object washed ashore on Australia’s west coast was examined and deemed not from the errant jet, adding to the hundreds of erroneous items spotted by satellite, plane and ship so far.

It has now been 48 days since the Boeing 777 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

“I’m just trying to reconcile the fact that we haven’t seen anything yet, but we heard those pings,” Jules Jaffe, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells TIME, referring to signals believed to have come from the black box data recorders of the missing plane. “The other hypothesis is that the debris field is quite large.”

Small pieces of wreckage spread over a large area will hamper investigators attempting to fathom what prompted the 11-year-old aircraft to go tragically off-course. Other than the black box flight and voice recorders, says Michael Daniel, an international aviation-safety consultant with more than three decades experience at the FAA, the “direction of the flaps, angles and controls, will show intent on how to land the aircraft.” Such clues may not be available if the plane hit the ocean hard and splintered into many fragments.

Assuming that the remaining Bluefin search proves fruitless, investigators will have to decide how best to proceed. Four pings were heard from the depths of the southern Indian Ocean. The current focused search area forms a 10 km-radius circle around the second of these pings, which has been deemed the most promising.

The decision to be made is whether to expand the search area incrementally from this same point, move to some of the other ping locations or reevaluate the entire operation. An answer is expected early next week after discussions between Angus Houston, the 66-year-old retired Australian Air Chief Marshall currently coordinating joint search operations, the Malaysian authorities and other stakeholders.

“Where they sensed the location of the pings and the strength of the pings, they’ll use different forms of triangulation and try to isolate a more probable area,” says Daniel. “It all helps but may not give a definitive answer for where the aircraft is.”

In any case, new assets will almost certainly be brought in to assist the hunt. The Remus 6000 is one possibility — this unmanned autonomous submarine first located doomed Air France Flight 447 in over 4 km-deep water of the Pacific Ocean, and has the ability to descend 2 km farther. But towed sonar locators, such as the Orion device operated by the U.S. Navy, many prove superior, as they can operate around the clock and provide real-time imagery without the laborious resurfacing and downloading of data. Certainly, says Jaffe, “The worst idea in the world is sticking a manned submersible down there because the target is so small [compared to the search area].”

On Thursday, up to 11 military aircraft and 11 ships were on hand to continue the hunt for debris. Air operations had been curtailed earlier in the week due to Tropical Cyclone Jack, and though it has now passed by the search zone, miserable conditions continue in its wake, with torrential rain, low cloud, winds up to 35 knots and sea swells of four meters, with visibility at just one kilometer.

As the hunt for MH370 enters yet another stage, already the most costly in aviation history, one certainty is that these fruitless forays will cease very shortly.

South Korea

Investigations Into the South Korea Ferry Disaster Reveal a Litany of Errors

People look at South Korean ferry Ohamana owned by Chonghaejin Marine Co. at Incheon Port Passenger Terminal in Incheon
The South Korean ferry Ohamana, owned by Chonghaejin Marine Co., lies moored at Incheon Port Passenger Terminal on April 22, 2014 Kim Hong-Ji—Reuters

Prosecutors have raided the offices and home of the Sewol's reclusive owner, seeking answers to a tragedy that has so far claimed 160 lives

The owner of the South Korean ferry that capsized last week with the loss of scores of lives is facing increased scrutiny, with investigators discovering that the vessel was overloaded, had recently been modified and was possibly crewed by insufficiently trained personnel.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Sewol was loaded with 3,608 tons of cargo on its final journey — over three times more than the maximum recommended weight of 987 tons.

After acquiring the Sewol in 2012, operators Chonghaejin Marine Co. added 240 additional cabins, increasing passenger capacity by more than 150 people but also raising the vessel’s weight by almost 240 tons. It has also been established that the ferry was being operated despite a request made by the captain on April 1 for repairs to the steering gear.

The Sewol began listing sharply at around 9 a.m. last Wednesday, after making a sharp turn just outside Jindo Island, on its way from the city of Incheon to the resort island of Jeju. Within two hours, the ship — carrying 476 passengers, the majority of which were high school students going on a field trip — was submerged. Besides the 174 passengers rescued on the first day, no survivors have been found. The confirmed death toll surpassed 160 on Thursday, and the remaining missing passengers are feared dead.

On Wednesday, prosecutors raided the office and residence of Chonghaejin’s owner, Yoo Byung-eun, as well as premises belonging to his company’s affiliates and an evangelical church in which he is believed to have an interest. Known as the “millionaire with no face” because of his rare public appearances, Yoo is a notorious figure in South Korea, having been jailed for fraud for four years in the early 1990s and previously leading a religious cult. In 1987, over 30 people from his sect committed mass suicide, but prosecutors found no evidence against Yoo.

According to Chonghaejin’s audit report for last year, the company spent just $521 on crew training, including evacuation drills. By comparison, a competitor, Daea Express Shipping, spent 20 times that amount.

Among the 29 crew members on board the Sewol on its ill-fated journey, 20 people, including the captain, have been arrested or detained on charges of negligence and abandoning the passengers. Although crew members claimed that it was impossible to launch lifeboats while the Sewol was sinking, photos show a coast-guard officer managing the task during the initial rescue efforts. It has also emerged that the first distress call to authorities came from a student on board, not a member of the crew and that the 25-year-old third officer who was at the helm when the incident happened had never commanded the ship on this particularly dangerous stretch before.

Meanwhile, divers are making a concerted push to recover more bodies from the vessel in advance of adverse weather expected on Friday. Three large cranes are positioned near the scene, but a salvage operation of the 6,825-ton ferry is on hold until relatives of the missing passengers give their consent.

The tragedy is the worst maritime disaster in over two decades in South Korea and has evoked sympathy from all over the world — even from the country’s longtime nemesis North Korea. A spokeswoman for the South Korean Unification Ministry quoted a message from Pyongyang, which said “We express condolences for the missing and dead, including young students, from the sinking of the Sewol.”

Son Byoung-gi, a lawyer representing Chonghaejin Marine Co., has said the company will announce its position after the investigation is completed, adding that “if there is any legal responsibility, the owners are willing to offer their wealth and assets to help compensate the [families of the] victims.”

Kenya

Four Killed in Kenya Car Bomb

A general view shows the scene of an explosion outside the Pangani police station in the capital Nairobi
A car exploded outside the Pangani police station in Kenya's capital Nairobi on April 23, 2014, killing four people. © Thomas Mukoya—Reuters

Chief of Kenya's police vows war on terrorism after car bomb explodes in a northeastern suburb of the capital Nairobi. In recent years Kenya has been the target of terrorist attacks conducted by the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabab

Four people, including two police officers, were killed when a car bomb exploded in Kenya’s capital Nairobi Wednesday night, the Interior Ministry said on its Twitter account.

The two officers stopped a car for a traffic violation and escorted the vehicle to a police station in the Pangani district of Nairobi where it exploded, killing the two occupants and the police officers.

“I mourn the loss of the the two gallant officers who’ve died in their line of duty as they were defending and protecting our beloved country,” David Kimayo, the Inspector General of Kenya’s national police, wrote on his Twitter account.

He stressed that the vehicle could have caused “huge damage” had it exploded somewhere else.

Kimayo suggested that terrorists were responsible and said “I fully declare war” on terrorism.

In recent years Kenya has been the target of terrorist attacks conducted by the Somalian terrorist group al-Shabab in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in Somalia. Last September, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that resulted in 67 deaths, with dozens wounded.

U.N. Considering Sanctions Over South Sudan Massacre

(NAIROBI, Kenya) — The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday viewed “horrific pictures of corpses” from the scene of last week’s massacre in South Sudan and discussed taking actions that could include sanctions, diplomats said.

The U.N. has said hundreds of civilians were killed in the massacre last week in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state. The top U.N. aid official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, has said “piles and piles” of bodies were left behind.

Security Council members watched a video showing bodies lining a street and the interior of a mosque where civilians had sought shelter from rebel forces taking control from government troops amid ethnic tensions in the world’s newest country.

“Horrific pictures of corpses,” France’s ambassador to the U.N., Gerard Araud, tweeted from the meeting. “No place safe for refugees.”

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the “cycle of violence must stop immediately” and warned that a “humanitarian catastrophe will become even more a certainty” if it doesn’t.

Because of the months of fighting, more than 1 million people have fled their homes. With few residents tending crops, U.N. officials say the country faces a severe risk of famine in the months ahead.

Araud told reporters, “I think we are ready to go down the road of sanctions.”

In a tweet after the meeting, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power called for sanctions on “political spoilers and those who target civilians.”

President Barack Obama earlier this month warned that the United States may levy sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, on individuals and entities involved in stoking violence in South Sudan.

The massacre has left diplomats and the U.N. mission in South Sudan questioning what to do next.

“We have also to face the fact that maybe we can’t cooperate with this government anymore,” Araud told reporters. “Because atrocities are committed by both sides. So I do think we have to have some soul-searching about what should the U.N. do.”

Ladsous told the council that neither the South Sudan government nor the rebel forces is sincere in participating in peace talks, but the talks had to be supported as “the only game in town,” according to a U.N. diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed. An earlier cease-fire agreement between the sides didn’t hold.

Violence has been raging in South Sudan since mid-December. Much of the fighting has been along ethnic lines, with supporters of the president, a Dinka, pitted against supporters of the former vice president, a Nuer.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Security Council to investigate the killings in Bentiu and said the violence shows that ethnically motivated brutality against civilians is spiraling out of control in the landlocked country, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.

As tensions have risen, the U.N. mission has faced attack, even as tens of thousands of civilians continue to take shelter inside its bases across the country.

In a statement Wednesday, the mission said South Sudan Minister of Information Michael Lueth was wrong to tell a news conference that residents seeking protection were barred from entering the U.N. camp near the Bentiu massacre scene.

The mission said the numbers of people sheltering inside the base rose from 8,000 on April 15, when the killings started, to about 22,500 by Wednesday.

The U.N. also said Lueth was wrong to suggest that refugees were rebel fighters or sympathizers, and these remarks could encourage attacks on refugees inside U.N. camps.

___

Anna reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Heroes

As Hope for Ferry Survivors Fades, Stories of Heroism Emerge

+ READ ARTICLE

Tales of young crew members helping passengers escape the doomed Sewol ferry are emerging in the aftermath of its sinking off South Korea. At the same time, the official death toll from the disaster continues to climb and funerals are held for those victims whose bodies have already been recovered.

Praise has poured in for three crew members — Kim Ki-woong,Jeong Hyun-seon and Park Jee-young – who sacrificed their lives trying to help passengers to safety while the vessel ferry sank on April 17.

Park Ji-young, 22, a part-time ferry employee, reportedly helped passengers escape and tended to the injured. Survivors say she refused to abandon ship while there were passengers yet to be rescued.

Crew member Kim Ki-woong, 28, and his fiancée, Jeong Hyun-seon, 27, were said to be yelling to passengers to get out as the ship was sinking. “Then, the couple went back to the cabins to save other passengers. And they never came back,” one survivor told The Korea Times.

Over 31,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the three to be buried at the national cemetery and their families provided compensation for their deaths.

diplomacy

Obama Offering Japan Security, Economic Assurances

(TOKYO) — Facing fresh questions about his commitment to Asia, President Barack Obama will seek to convince Japan’s leaders Thursday that he can deliver on his security and economic pledges, even as the crisis in Ukraine demands U.S. attention and resources elsewhere.

The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia is threatening to overshadow Obama’s four-country Asia swing that began Wednesday. He may decide during the trip whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow, a step that would signal the failure of an international agreement aimed at defusing the crisis.

But at least publicly, Obama will try to keep the focus on his Asia agenda, which includes reaffirming his commitment to a defense treaty with Japan, making progress on a stalled trans-Pacific trade agreement and finalizing a deal to modestly increase the American military footprint in the Philippines.

He began his day with a call on Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, a lush park-like complex surrounded by modern skyscrapers where he was greeted by a military honor guard and children holding U.S. and Japanese flags. After taking in the scene, the president, emperor and empress walked along a maze of red carpet into the palace for a private meeting, with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and other aides trailing behind.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he and Obama had a long talk at a private dinner Wednesday evening and looked forward to a fruitful meeting Thursday “so that we can jointly send a message to the rest of the world that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unshakeable and strong.”

Obama opened the first state visit by an American president to Japan in nearly 20 years with the dinner at Tokyo’s famed sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. The restaurant is run by 88-year-old Jiro Ono, whose meticulous technique was detailed in the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”

Abe told reporters Obama praised the meal as “the best sushi he had had in his life.”

Later Thursday, Obama planned a news conference with Abe and then a return to the Imperial Palace for a state dinner. He also plans to visit the Meiji Shrine, which honors the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from over two centuries of isolation to become a world power.

Obama’s stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines serve as something of a do-over after he canceled a visit to Asia last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown. The cancellation provided fresh fodder for those in the region who worry that the White House’s much-hyped pivot to Asia is continually taking a backseat to other foreign and domestic priorities.

“I think the president will want to make clear that this commitment will be unaffected by developments in Ukraine and other global events,” said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s former Asia director. “Countries want to hear that the U.S. presence is in fact steady and strong as China rises.”

While China is not on Obama’s eight-day itinerary, leaders in Beijing will be closely watching the president’s tour. Obama’s advisers insist the trip — and the White House’s broader Asia policy — is not designed counter to China’s growing power, and they say the president is not asking Asian nations to choose between allegiance to Washington or Beijing.

Still, Obama faces a particularly tricky balance in Tokyo, which is locked in a tense territorial dispute with China over islands Japan oversees in the East China Sea. The U.S. has a defense treaty requiring it to come to Japan’s defense if it is attacked, and Obama is expected to reaffirm his commitment to that agreement. Ahead of his arrival, he told a Japanese newspaper that the treaty does apply to the island disputes and he opposes “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

“Disputes need to be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion,” Obama said in a written response to questions from Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper.

A Chinese government spokesman responded that China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and that “the so-called Japan-U.S. alliance” should not harm China’s territorial rights.

“The U.S. should respect facts, take a responsible attitude, remain committed to not taking sides on territory and sovereignty issues, speak and act cautiously and earnestly play a constructive role in regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

On the economic front, Obama is unlikely to have much new to show for efforts to deepen trade ties with Asia. Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation free trade pact, are stalled, particularly discussions between the U.S. and Japan over tariffs on agriculture and automobiles.

And Obama’s effort to fast-track passage of the eventual agreement back home is being blocked by congressional Democrats, creating a political dilemma for the White House in a midterm election year.

“It is a bit odd for the president to push for TPP in Japan when he has not gotten fast-track negotiating authority from Congress,” says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., an opponent of the trade pact.

The trade agreement’s opponents argue that it would send U.S. jobs overseas to countries with cheaper labor costs. Supporters contend the deal would expand export markets for American companies in one of the world’s fastest growing regions, while also serving as a counter to China’s rising economic power.

___

Associated Press writer Darlene Superville and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, and Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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