U.S. President Barack Obama is dabbling as mediator between South Korea and Japan in order to keep China in check. His relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is shaped by mistrust. There is a lot at stake.

When U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet on Thursday, they will not have much time for exchanging niceties. The two allies must discuss a list of security, strategy and economic issues. Their bilateral relationship is at risk.

Abe hopes that the U.S. will clearly affirm its military alliance with Japan. For Obama, the summit is another brick in the wall in his Asia strategy: He is testing out being mediator between South Korea and Japan in order to thus keep an invisible third party — that will come up in all discussions — in check diplomatically: China.

Abe and Obama’s relationship is deemed to be formed on mistrust. First, Obama supposedly wanted to continue his journey after just one night in Tokyo — that is really too short for a full state visit. In the end, he agreed to stay longer. There is more to discuss by now than Obama would like. After many differences of opinion over the last few months, doubts have arisen as to whether the U.S. can count on Japan as a reliable ally in Asia. On the contrary, Japan is questioning whether it can still count on help from the U.S. in the event of a military incident, for instance with China or North Korea.

Japan Provokes China and South Korea

To add to the resentment, professed nationalist Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in the center of Tokyo at the end of December 2013, despite vehement warning from the United States. Men considered to be war criminals were enshrined there, next to fallen soldiers of World War II. China and South Korea considered this an insult. They insinuate that Japan wants to bring its imperialistic past back to life.

For different reasons, both cannot and will not forget that Japan attacked and partially colonized their countries. In December, the U.S. supposedly tried to deter Abe from the shrine visit in an hour-long phone call. Only a few hours later, the U.S. reacted with the statement that it was “disappointed” with Japan.

Nevertheless, shortly before Obama’s arrival in Tokyo, around 150 officials and cabinet ministers went to the Yasukuni Shrine — with the usual reactions from their Asian neighbors. Abe abstained this time and sent a gift as always. But that should be sufficient to annoy the U.S. again, particularly as it has struggled for a long time to reconcile its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Only at the end of March, during the nuclear summit in The Hague, Obama brought together South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Abe to an official talk — the first of its kind, although both have been in office for over a year. The three of them discussed regional security with regard to North Korea and its missile and nuclear testing.

Japanese “Comfort Women” Cause Potential Conflict

The relationship between Park and Abe is the worst between any other two East Asian heads of state for a long time. Both come from conservative political dynasties — Park’s father was president of South Korea; Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister. The stumbling block is in addition to a latent territorial conflict over an island called Dokdo by the South Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese — the issue of the “comfort women.” Thus euphemistically named in Japan, these women, mostly Chinese and South Korean, were forced into prostitution by the Japanese imperial army in the 1930s and 1940s; we are talking about several hundred thousand.

Abe, however, is known for denying the existence of this forced prostitution. Only a few weeks ago, he said he wanted to investigate the “Kono Statement” — an apology for the forced prostitution — in other words, withdraw it once again. But under pressure from the United States, he refrained.

It seemed that Abe wants to test again and again how far he can go to sharpen Japan’s profile as an independent — and not dependent on the U.S. — nation, without permanently annoying the United States. Initially it seemed that he would shelve his ultraconservative ideas in favor of pragmatic politics and his so-called “Abenomics” economic policy. For the first time in many years, he had managed to inspire a feeling of optimism in the Japanese economy.

Meeting Relies on Economic Cooperation

Borne by unusually good election and survey results, he even manages to push the sales tax increase, strove toward for years, from 5 to 8 percent, and to enter Japan into negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership against opposition from his core voters. The free trade agreement, led by the United States, would mean that Japan would have to abstain from many high protective tariffs, for instance on rice and beef. The negotiations on this, however, have come to a halt in the last few weeks. It is all the more important for Abe and Obama to achieve success on a political level at their meeting.

If he wants to ascertain the ongoing support of the United States, Abe must again curb his nationalistic disposition somewhat, which has been pushing the surface more and more powerfully in recent months. In doing so, he puts even more of a strain — a cause of worry for the U.S. — on Japan’s relationship with China, which is already stretched to breaking point. Since 2012, an old conflict between the two nations has meanwhile flared up: They are fighting over a group of islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

The uncertain status of the islands was put on hold for a long time in favor of more important issues, such as economic cooperation. In the meantime, both sides have been working on national assertiveness. Therefore, the island dispute is convenient for them. It gives them an excuse to modernize their military and increase the budget for it. Abe can counter the critics’ view that in such a security-political environment, he can no longer justify Japan only having a “self-defense force,” as stipulated in Article 9 of its pacifist constitution of 1947.

Obama’s Balance with the Asian Allies

If it were up to Abe, he would change the article. Since this is politically difficult, however, he is currently working on the next best solution: a new version of the constitution. If everything goes according to Abe’s plan, this would enable Japan to help allies like the United States, for example, should they come under attack. Critics, however, see in this a step backward into Japan’s military-imperial past.

During his visit, President Obama must master a balancing act not to allow himself and the U.S. get dragged into a territorial conflict by Japan, but on the other hand also demonstrate clear support to his ally. This is also important for his own status as statesman: Since Russia recently annexed Crimea, and the U.S. has so far not notably intervened, many Asian allies are questioning how the U.S. would react if China were to annex disputed regions.

Obama has not integrated China into his tour. He also wanted to show with the tour that the U.S. does not want to surrender the territory to Beijing. But Obama is making an effort to smooth things over. According to the newspaper Yomiuri, Obama said, “In other words, we welcome the continuing rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful and plays a responsible role in global affairs.” He added, “Our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”