Obama leaves U.S. for Asia tour, alliance in focus in Japan

U.S. President Barack Obama left the United States on Tuesday for Japan, the first leg of a four-nation trip to East and Southeast Asia during which he will promote the U.S. commitment to the region.

Obama will explain the U.S. intention to focus on the Asia-Pacific, a policy described as "rebalancing," during talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the leaders of South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, U.S. government officials said.

The issues of maritime security and territorial disputes in the East and South China seas will be discussed in the planned bilateral summit scheduled for each stop of the trip, Ben Rhodes, deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters Monday in Washington.

The issues are "currently front and center in the region," Rhodes said, against the backdrop of China's growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas that has caused friction with countries including Japan and the Philippines.

Soon after his arrival in Tokyo on Wednesday evening, Obama will have a private dinner with Abe ahead of their formal summit the following day, with security and economic alliances, including ongoing negotiations for a Pacific free trade initiative among key topics.

On the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, Japanese and U.S. trade officials continued last-minute efforts until Tuesday to reach agreement, but failed to bridge the remaining gaps on market access before the Abe-Obama meeting.

Obama will discuss with Abe "the modernization of our security alliance," Rhodes said, referring to the work on following up on a bilateral agreement to revise defense cooperation guidelines within this year so that both countries can better deal with issues related to North Korea.

The Japanese government invited Obama as a state guest for what is the first state visit by a U.S. president in 18 years, but first lady Michelle Obama is not accompanying her husband. "She tends to focus, again, on her responsibilities not just as first lady, but as a mother," Rhodes said.

On Thursday afternoon Obama will attend a youth event at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, known as Miraikan in Tokyo's waterfront area, and visit Meiji Shrine in downtown Tokyo, which was built in honor of Emperor Meiji following his death in 1912.

Obama's trip to Tokyo and the second leg of his Asia tour, to Seoul, come after he brokered a meeting between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye in The Hague last month. Rhodes said Obama will try to cement closer ties with Abe and Park building on the outcome of their trilateral summit.

After moving to Seoul on Friday Obama will discuss with Park their efforts "to stand up to the provocative acts from the North Koreans" and the implementation of a bilateral free trade pact, Rhodes said.

North Korea recently fired hundreds of artillery shells near the de facto sea border with South Korea in the Yellow Sea. As some of the shells flew beyond the border, South Korea responded. Pyongyang has also threatened to conduct a "new form" of nuclear test and launched rockets and missiles, including ballistic ones, into the Sea of Japan.

Obama will offer his condolences to South Koreans affected by the recent ferry disaster, which left more than 120 people confirmed dead and some 180 still missing, the White House official said.

As the first sitting U.S. president to visit Malaysia in nearly half a century, Obama will discuss with Prime Minister Najib Razak "a growing economic and commercial relationship" with the country in their summit on Sunday, Rhodes said.

The TPP negotiations will be discussed between Obama and Najib as Malaysia is one of the 12 countries seeking to sign the deal, he said. The last U.S. president to visit Malaysia while in office was Lyndon Johnson in 1966.

Obama will leave Malaysia for the Philippines next Monday and discuss with President Benigno Aquino the bilateral security alliance among other issues.