TOKYO -- President Barack Obama is seeking to reassure Japanese leaders Thursday that he can deliver on his security and economic pledges to Asia 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.
Obama steered clear of more sensitive topics like the trade and China tensions as he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for a morning meeting at Tokyo's Akasaka Palace. Instead, Obama spoke of a U.S.-Japanese bond that transcends its military alliance.
"My visit here I think once again represents my deep belief that a strong U.S.-Japan relationship is not only good for our countries, but the world," Obama said.
Abe, speaking through a translator, said he and Obama would be discussing the future of the "indispensable and irreplaceable" alliance. He and Obama planned to answer questions from reporters after their meeting.
Obama 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.
The president told the emperor that the last time they met, he did not have any gray hairs. "You have a very hard job," the emperor replied.
Obama opened the first state visit by an American president to Japan in nearly 20 years on Wednesday night, when he and Abe had dinner at Tokyo's famed sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro. Abe told reporters Obama praised the meal as "the best sushi he had had in his life."
Later Thursday, Obama planned to 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.
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.
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.