TOKYO — President Barack Obama closed out his first full day of a week-long trip to Asia on Thursday with a state dinner at Japan's Imperial Palace and a toast to the U.S.-Japan alliance.
"Although we are separated by vast oceans, our peoples come together every day in every realm," Obama said, delivering a toast to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. "May we never give up hope. May we always take care of each other. And may we continue to live strong for tomorrow."
The elderly emperor and empress greeted Obama as he arrived, beaming, and waited outside until his motorcade departed.
The menu for the dinner -- the first state event for a U.S. president since 1996 -- included royal consommé, red sea bream steamed with Champagne, roasted leg of lamb, seasonal salad, ice cream in the image of Mt. Fuji and fruit. The spirits included Corton Charlemagne, 1999; Château Margaux, 1994; Moët et Chandon, Dom Pérignon 1998 and Japanese Sake.
Earlier, Obama pledged to pursue new sanctions against Russia if it fails to live up to an agreement to quell violence in embattled Ukraine.
“Assuming they don’t follow through, we will follow through,” Obama said, in “days not weeks,” on threats to impose a new round of economic sanctions, including potential “sectoral” sanctions on Russian industries.
He noted it wouldn’t “require a radical shift,” just the “stuff they agreed to at least on paper last week.”
The administration last week in Geneva struck an agreement to hold off on new sanctions against Russia if the country removed outlaw militias and took other steps to restore calm.
But Obama said there’s no evidence Russia is abiding by the “spirit or the letter” of the agreement and that the administration “has been preparing for prospect that we will have to engage in further sanctions.”
The remarks came as Obama opened his first full day of a weeklong Asia trip Thursday with the red-carpeted pomp of a visit to the Imperial Palace and a much sought-after show of support from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Standing next to Obama, Abe through an interpreter called the alliance between the two countries “unwavering and indispensable” and said Obama has displayed “tremendous enthusiasm” in the relationship.
Asian allies who share the region with an increasingly assertive China were said to be rattled by U.S. reluctance to intervene deeply in Syria and Ukraine, but Abe backed Obama.
“I fully trust President Obama,” Abe said, adding that Obama “exerted strong leadership” in pulling together a global response to Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
Obama and Abe met at Akasaka Palace before the press conference, with Abe calling Obama’s visit a testament to the administration’s efforts to focus on Asia. The initiative has been questioned by some allies in the region as the administration has appeared distracted by domestic budget battles and an array of international conflagrations in the Middle East, and more recently, in Ukraine.
“This greatly contributes to regional peace and prosperity and Japan strongly supports and also certainly welcomes this,” Abe said of Obama’s visit. He pledged that his administration, which has strained ties with South Korea – the next stop on Obama’s visit - “intends to contribute to regional peace and prosperity more proactively than ever.”
The two stressed economic cooperation as well, but failed to reach an agreement on the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, saying only at the joint press conference that talks between negotiators would continue.
Obama gently chided Abe on one of the key sticking points: access to Japan’s tightly controlled markets for beef and pork, rice, dairy, sugar and wheat products.
“I’ve been honest that the U.S. needs access to markets in Japan,” Obama said, adding the U.S. “can’t accept anything less.”
Noting that Abe has been pushing to revive the long-stagnant Japanese economy, Obama said he told the prime minister the trade deal is a prime opportunity.
“Now is the time for bold steps,” Obama said.
The visit is aimed at expanding cultural ties as well between the U.S. and the region, and Obama before his talks with Abe, was received by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at Japan’s Imperial Palace.
Obama wished the royal family well and noted that he had “very fond memories” of their last visit four years ago. Back then, the president joked, he didn’t have any gray hair.
“You have a very hard job,” replied the emperor, who told Obama the couple was pleased to welcome him to the palace.
While Obama has visited Japan before, this is the first formal "state" visit by a U.S. president since Bill Clinton in 1996. After touring a Tokyo science museum and shrine, Obama is to return to the palace Thursday night for a state dinner.
To the relief of Abe, Obama made it clear that the U.S. backs Japan in a long simmering dispute over a string of tiny islands in the East China Sea. The islands, which both countries claim, are under Japanese administration, Obama said, and thus would be protected by the U.S. military, should China strike.
But Obama also made it clear that the U.S. isn’t taking sides in the eventual resolution of the sovereignty of the islands, and he warned that he wants to see the dispute settled peacefully.
“Historically they’ve been administered by Japan and we don’t believe they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Obama said.
But he said he noted during his talks with Abe that he emphasized a peaceful resolution to the situation and told the Prime Minister that it’s important not to escalate the situation.
And he used the opportunity to deliver a warning to China – and to Russia as well, saying that while the U.S. wants a strong relationship with China, it has to play by international rules.
“If large countries like the U.S., like Russia, feel whenever it’s expedient they can take action that disadvantages smaller countries, that’s not the kind of world that’s going to be stable and prosperous and secure over the long haul,” he said.
The Chinese government had earlier taken offense at Obama’s remarks on the disputed islands, saying the U.S. should honor its commitment “not to choose sides.”
China rattled nerves in the region last November when it expanded its airspace to claim control of the air zone over the contested waters between itself and Japan.
But Chinese state media also reported that numerous countries, including China and the U.S., have agreed to a code of conduct in order to reduce conflict and encourage communication over any encounters in the East and South China seas.
Abe, who spoke through an interpreter, referred several times to Obama as “Barack,” and said the two had spoken "heart to heart." Obama, he said, told him that the sushi they had Wednesday night at one of the city's top sushi restaurants was the “best sushi” of his life.
Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this report from Beijing.