TOKYO, Nov 13, 2009 (AFP) - Barack Obama set foot in Asia for the first time as US president Friday, arriving in Japan to launch a four-nation tour designed to shore up US power in a region increasingly dominated by rising giant China.
|US President Barack Obama waves upon his arrival at Tokyo International Airport at Haneda on November 13, 2009. (AFP photo)|
Air Force One landed in a chill Tokyo drizzle ahead of Obama's talks with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who is vowing after ending half a century of conservative rule that Japan will be more assertive in its US alliance.
Obama leaves a clutch of domestic crises behind as he seeks to counter charges that US influence has frayed in Asia, with Washington distracted by its deep economic slump and the sapping wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just over a year since capturing the White House, Obama will meet many regional leaders for the first time at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore.
He will also become the first US president to sit down with all 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including US foe Myanmar.
Obama will then head to China in the three-day centrepiece of his tour, with top global security issues and trade and currency differences on the agenda, and wrap up his trip in South Korea.
In Japan, where a new government took power two months ago, both sides will seek to smooth over a row on US bases and stress shared goals on climate change, the Afghanistan war and for a nuclear-weapons-free world.
Obama, travelling without his wife Michelle, was greeted by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and US ambassador to Tokyo John Roos, before his motorcade swept away heading for his closely guarded downtown hotel.
Hatoyama has said he may scrap an unpopular plan to build a new US military base on the southern Okinawa island, and that he will end a naval refuelling mission that has since 2001 supported the US campaign in Afghanistan.
Stressing humanitarian aid over military support, his government this week pledged five billion dollars in assistance for Afghanistan to help stabilise the war-torn country that is Obama's biggest foreign policy challenge.
Hatoyama, despite a more assertive stance towards the superpower, has voiced admiration for Obama and stressed similarities between their Democratic parties, which both defeated conservative governments on a promise of change.
The leaders were expected to agree to joint efforts to battle climate change and the spread of nuclear weapons, including the threat posed by North Korea which has in the past test-fired missiles across the Japanese islands.
Japan's top government spokesman Hirofumi Hirano said the summit would be "an opportunity to enhance relations in trust between our prime minister and the president. That's our top priority.
"At the same time, we would like to reach concrete agreements. The environment and economic issues, as well as our long-term perspective for Japan-US relations will be on the agenda."
A senior Obama administration official that the president was sensitive to the dynamics of the transition of power in Japan.
"There is plenty of experience in the US-Japan partnership with transitions in Washington, there is a lot less experience to changes in Tokyo. A historic transition has occurred in Japan and it is still underway."
"I think the new leadership is sorting things out, the president has shown in word and deed that he is comfortable in that fact."
The official noted that Tokyo was the first stop on Obama's tour and that the president would stress "respect and responsibility -- mutual respect between two great nations."
World War II in the Pacific started with Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour and ended days after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to the US post-war occupation of Japan.
As a legacy of that era, the United States still has 47,000 troops in Japan, most of them on Okinawa, where many residents oppose the US military presence.
Hatoyama has pledged to review a 2006 agreement to realign US forces in Japan, especially a plan to build a new air base in a coastal area of Okinawa.
More than 20,000 anti-base activists protested on the island last Sunday, and a fresh anti-US rally was expected Friday in Tokyo, where some 16,000 police were deployed to ensure security during Obama's visit.