TOKYO - US President Barack Obama wrapped up a state visit to Japan on Friday during which he assured America's ally that Washington would come to its defence, but failed to clinch a trade deal key to both his "pivot" to Asia and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reforms.
Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been seeking to display the alliance was strong in the face of a rising China, but their success in putting recent strains behind them was partly marred by a failure to reach a deal seen as crucial to a broader regional trade pact.
That failure delayed a joint statement on security and economic ties until shortly before the US leader left for Seoul, the next stop on his week-long, four-nation Asian tour.
Obama and Abe had ordered their top aides to make a final push to reach a trade agreement after the leaders met on Thursday, but Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters that gaps remained despite recent progress.
"This time we can't say there's a basic agreement," Amari told reporters after a second day of almost around-the-clock talks failed to settle differences over farm products and cars."Overall, the gaps are steadily narrowing."
Seeking to put a positive spin on the trade front, the two sides said in their statement that they were committed to taking"bold steps" to reach a two-way deal, which would inject momentum into a delayed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
A senior US trade official said the two sides had achieved a breakthrough on market access, but provided few details. "There are still details to be worked out. There is still much work to be done ... We believe we do have a breakthrough in our bilateral negotiations," said the senior official accompanying Obama to South Korea.
The TPP is high on Abe's economic reform agenda and central to Obama's policy of expanding the US presence in Asia.
Obama on Thursday assured Japan that Washington was committed to coming to its defence, including of tiny isles at the heart of a row with China, but denied he had drawn any new"red line" and urged peaceful dialogue over the dispute.
Friday's joint statement echoed those comments and put in writing a long-held US stance that the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea are covered by a security treaty that obliges Washington to defend Japan.
Those comments drew a swift rebuke from Beijing, which also claims sovereignty over the Japanese-controlled islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Japanese and Chinese patrol ships have been playing cat-and-mouse near the isles, and Washington is wary of being drawn into any clash.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China had"serious concerns" about some of the contents of the joint statement. "We urge the United States and Japan to abandon their Cold War mentality, and respect the concerns and interests of other countries in the region, and avoid further interference with regional peace and stability," he told a daily news briefing.