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Japan hopes for U.S. help in row with China

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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APEC summit begins
  • Japan's prime minister thanks Barack Obama for support with territorial disputes
  • Japan stresses the need for U.S. help in its strained relations with China
  • U.S. attempts to play peacemaker

(CNN) -- The key topic of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit may be trade, but on the sidelines, host nation Japan is stressing the need for U.S. support in its strained relations with China.

And analysts say while the U.S. attempts to play peacemaker, it may see its future with China in Japan's current relationship with the rising superpower.

Japan's prime minister, briefing reporters about his meeting with the U.S. president on Saturday, thanked Barack Obama for his support in territorial disputes with Russia and China.

The disputes with both countries surround islands that Japan claims as sovereign territory, and began with a September skirmish at sea with China.

A Chinese fishing crew collided with two Japan coast guard vessels near islands in the East China Sea. Japan and China both claim the island as their territory. The Japanese coast guard detained the Chinese crew and captain, sparking an international dispute between the two countries and dragging relations to new lows.

China, flexing its growing economic muscle in the region, canceled high level ministerial meetings and, according to multiple Japanese importers, cut off supply of rare earth materials Japan relies on to produce high tech products. Thousands of Chinese tourists canceled vacations to Japan, an increasingly important source of income for Japan's tourism trade.

Japan's prosecutors eventually released the Chinese crew and captain, citing concerns over more diplomatic fallout with China.

I think what they (the United States) can learn is don't apologize.
--Keith Henry, Asia Institute

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's administration stressed the need to move forward with an important economic powerhouse in the region, a nation Japan's economy relies on more and more.

China is Japan's number one trading partner.

Weeks later, Russia's president visited another set of disputed islands between Japan and Russia, seen largely as Russia taking an opportunity to take a stand against a weakened Japanese prime minister.

Japan's prime minister has seen his approval ratings plummet in the wake of the disputes with China and Russia.

Tokyo based analyst Keith Henry of the Asia Institute says there are lessons learned by Kan's government, but there is also a lesson in this dispute for Obama.

"I think the U.S. will find an economic partner, which China is, that will be a little less willing to bend to the will of the U.S. In fact, they're going to expect the U.S. to bend to their will," Henry said.

Japan serves as an example of how not to conduct diplomacy with China, increasingly muscling into prominence in the world economy, according to Henry.

"I think what they (the United States) can learn is, don't apologize. Be as adamant and confident in terms of the national self interests of the U.S. and approach the Chinese in an equally aggressive way. Failure to do so will put the U.S. in a position that Japan is finding itself with China."