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Obama’s trip to Asia undercut by tragedy

Nations reeling from disasters

President Obama greeted US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and Japanese officials upon his arrival in Tokyo Wednesday.

Toru Hanai/REUTERS

President Obama greeted US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and Japanese officials upon his arrival in Tokyo Wednesday.

TOKYO — President Obama arrived in Japan on Wednesday evening to begin a four-country tour of Asia, after first stopping in Washington state to survey the devastation left there by last month’s deadly mudslide. It was a fitting start, given that everywhere on this trip, he will witness the lingering fallout of disasters, natural and manmade.

From South Korea, where public outrage is surging after a ferry accident that claimed the lives of scores of teenagers, to Malaysia, where the authorities face harsh scrutiny over their handling of a missing jetliner, Obama will encounter leaders under pressure from angry, often grief-stricken constituents.

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In the Philippines, the government has labored to recover from withering criticism of its botched response to Typhoon Haiyan last fall. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was tripped up by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, faulted last summer for playing down a leakage of highly radioactive water from the plant.

White House officials, who have come with a busy agenda of economic and security issues, worry that the leaders — particularly President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, for whom the ferry tragedy is still unfolding — will be preoccupied when they meet with Obama.

That would be a missed opportunity for the South Koreans, who appealed to the White House to add a stop in Seoul when news surfaced last fall that Obama was planning to visit Tokyo. It will be the president’s fourth trip to South Korea, the most visits he has made in office to any Asian country.

Relations between South Korea and Japan have been deeply strained since Park and Abe came into office, with the two sides replaying World War II-era grievances. Earlier this month, Obama brokered a carefully orchestrated meeting between the leaders in The Hague that was meant to clear the air.

The prime minister has raised hopes in Washington because of his commitment to overhauling the Japanese economy. The United States would like to announce progress, if not a signed deal, in trade negotiations with Japan during the visit.

In Seoul, administration officials said, Obama hopes to increase pressure on North Korea, which has reverted to a pattern of missile tests and other provocative actions. But Park is likely to be consumed by the desperate effort to find survivors in the sunken ferry.

Obama faces an even more delicate situation in Malaysia, which his advisers had hoped to celebrate as a reliable partner in counterterrorism operations and a model of a majority-Muslim democracy in Asia. Instead, it has become a byword for confusion and opacity after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

In the Philippines, at least, Obama will be able to speak openly about the typhoon and offer help for the next storm. He and President Benigno S. Aquino III are expected to sign a deal to expand access to bases for US warships and planes rotating through the archipelago.

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