The Cable

Kerry’s first overseas trip off to shaky start

America's new top diplomat is already facing trouble and confusion as he begins a two-week trip whose major focus is on coalescing international action on Syria.

With John Kerry in London Monday on the first leg of his nine-country tour of Europe and the Middle East, administration officials were scrambling to salvage a planned meeting between the new U.S. secretary of state and the leaders of the Syrian opposition coalition scheduled for Thursday.

Following a Monday meeting in London with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry condemned the Syrian regime's use of rockets to attack civilians in Aleppo but declined to specify any of the steps he suggested earlier this month the Obama administration is "evaluating" to change the situation on the ground in Syria. He downplayed the notion that any new American initiatives would be unveiled at the upcoming Friends of Syria meeting in Italy.

"Now, let me make clear, we will continue to work closely with our British allies to address the growing humanitarian crisis, and to support the Syrian Opposition Council. We are coordinating with the Syrian opposition coalition, we're coordinating with the U.N. and with others in order to help get relief to the victims who need that help," Kerry said. 

The leaders of the Syrian opposition council are threatening to boycott the Rome meeting, according to the New York Times, "to protest what they see as fainthearted international support." The administration sent U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to Cairo to try to persuade the coalition leaders to show up in Rome.

Kerry urged the opposition leaders to attend the Rome meeting Monday, casting the meeting as a unique opportunity for them to discuss ways the United States can help persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to change his thinking. 

"They should come and meet because in fact, countries have been helping them, and because we are precisely meeting to determine how to help President Assad change the calculation on the ground," Kerry said. "I said that previously in the United States -- that President Assad needs to be able to change his calculation. And President Obama has been engaged in examining exactly in what ways we may be able to contribute to that. That's the purpose of this meeting in Rome."

Kerry said he would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Tuesday in Berlin, and that he plans to discuss specific proposals Syria at the Rome meeting. 

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry told reporters that the secretary is focused on convincing Russia to convince Assad to change his behavior and his calculus.

"The Russia piece we've been focused on for some time, because we've been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime and everyone that there needs to be that political transition," the official said. "We're following up on that... we have not seen major breakthroughs with the Russians or a change of the Russian position. So we're not expecting this meeting to be a big breakthrough either." 

Hague said the British are already working with European partners on a package of new sanctions against the Assad regime and pledged that his country would soon be unveiling new steps to help the Syrian opposition defend itself from the military onslaught perpetrated by the regime.

"We agreed that for as long as a political solution to the conflict is blocked off, the international community has a responsibility to take steps to help prevent the loss of life in Syria, loss of life including the terrible loss of life that we have just witnessed in Aleppo," Hague said. "And that's why in the United Kingdom we believe we must significantly increase our support for the Syrian opposition on top of our large contributions to the humanitarian relief effort, and we are preparing to do just that. In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by, and it is an important opportunity in Rome on Thursday to discuss this with our allies and partners." 

The European Union decided this week not to end its embargo on shipping arms to the Syrian opposition, but the UK was able to get through a measure that expands the types of allowable non-lethal support to the armed opposition, to include things like night-vision goggles, armored vehicles, and body armor, the senior State Department official said.

But there's no expectation that the Obama administration is preparing to relax its reluctance toward providing the Syria rebels with anything beyond limited humanitarian assistance and communications equipment.

"I don't have anything further to add on our approach to arms in Syria," the official said

UPDATE: Late Mondy, the leadership of the Syrian opposition coalition reversed its decision to boycott the Thursday Friends of Syria meeting in Rome. Kerry called coalition presidentMoaz al-Khatib Monday, after which Khatib said via Facebook that Kerry and Hague had guaranteed additional measures "to alleviate the suffering of our people".

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Japanese prime minister to Washington: ‘I am back!’

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a clear message for his Washington audience Friday: He intends to restore Japan to a position of strength and leadership in the Pacific.

"I am back!" Abe declared forcefully to the hundreds of experts, officials, and reporters assembled in the basement of the Center for Strategic Studies Friday afternoon. "And Japan is back."

Abe was speaking both about himself, his country, and his party. He served as prime minister once before, for less than a year 2006-7 before resigning, officially for health reasons. He came back to power last December along with his Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for most of its postwar period, with the exception of the last three years.

Abe said the return of the LDP would mean a more aggressive, more assertive, and more active Japan both in the region and on the world stage.

"Japan is not and will never be a tier-two country. That is the core message I am here to make," he said. "I will get back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the benefit of the world."

He said his new plan had three planks: keeping Japan as a leading promoter of international rules and norms, continuing Japan's role as "a guardian of the global commons," and increasing Japan's cooperation with democracies in the region such as the United States, South Korea, and Australia.

He promised to increase the budget for the Japanese ministry of defense and pledged to protect Japanese control of the Senkaku islands in the face of increasingly confrontational moves by China, which also claims the islands.

"History and international law both attest that the islands are sovereign Japanese territory," he said. "We simply cannot tolerate challenge now or in the future. No nation should miscalculate about our resolve."

The United States has made clear that the treaty that codifies the U.S.-Japan alliance includes a commitment to protect Japan's administration of the islands, Abe said. He also pledged to avoid escalation of the issue with China if possible.

Abe also vowed to work with the United States to seek a Chapter 7 resolution against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council in response to North Korea's Feb. 11 detonation of a nuclear device.

The CSIS event followed a series of meetings Abe held at the White House, which included a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama and a working lunch.

"Obviously, Japan is one of our closest allies, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central foundation for our regional security and so much of what we do in the Pacific region," Obama said before the meeting.

The two leaders discussed how to form a response to North Korea's provocation and touched on the issues of Afghanistan, Iran, the recent terrorist attack on BP's facility in Algeria, and how to deepen economic cooperation.

After the meeting, Abe said that Obama had agreed that all sticks and no carrots should be used to respond to North Korea's latest belligerence.

"On North Korea, the important thing we discussed, we agreed that it was important for Japan and the United States to not provide rewards to North Korea for their actions such as launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests," Abe said. "That's number one. And number two, we agreed that we would cooperate so that a resolution, including sanctions, would be adopted in the U.N. We also discussed additional sanctions; for example, financial sanctions."

Also present in the oval office on the Japanese side were Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki, Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, according to a pool report.  Those on the U.S. side included Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark Lippert, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy NSA Mike Froman, NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel, and Ambassador to Japan John Roos.

Kerry and Kishida held a follow up meeting at the State Department Friday afternoon.

The trip was largely ceremonial and not much new ground was broken. No real progress was made on bringing Japan into the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration's main multilateral trade agenda item. Japan wants to exempt its domestic rice industry and the United States continues to emphasize that Japan must first join the talks before negotiating exemptions.

A brief joint statement issued after the meetings reiterated that state of play. 

"Recognizing that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States, the two Governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations," the statement read.

For Abe, the visit was a success in that he was able to deliver his plea for closer U.S. ties to a Washington foreign policy community that has been concerned with drift in the alliance over the past few years.

"Keep counting on my country," he said.

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