OSAKA – When Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda meets with Barack Obama on Monday, they will hold the first formal one-on-one talks between a Japanese leader and a U.S. president in Washington since February 2009.
A new agreement to return land controlled by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa to Japan is expected to be a highlight at the meeting, while greater bilateral cooperation between the State Department and the Foreign Ministry, as well as between the Pentagon and the Defense Ministry, is also thought to be on the agenda.
In addition, Noda and Obama will discuss numerous security and political issues, ranging from pressing concerns such as North Korea’s recent rocket launch to more welcome global developments, including Myanmar’s democratic reforms.
But while Noda and Obama have a lot of catching up to do, recent events in Tokyo and Washington have dampened expectations of significant progress on contentious bilateral issues, especially the Futenma air base’s relocation in Okinawa and Japan’s proposed participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade initiative.
Unfortunately, their rendezvous comes just as the two leaders find themselves with even less room to maneuver on key issues.
Noda, who was already facing intense pressure from within his ruling Democratic Party of Japan over Japan’s possible TPP entry, now also has to deal with a potential leadership challenge from party kingpin and archrival Ichiro Ozawa, who was cleared in court Thursday over a major fundraising scandal.
Noda is also trying to fend off external challenges to his leadership, both from opposition parties in the Diet and a number of regional groups across Japan that have recently been formed by local populist movements, especially Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka).
Obama, meanwhile, is already gearing up for November’s presidental poll and is keen to avoid creating controversy among Democratic supporters in key battleground states that are wary of Japan’s TPP participation.
The two leaders are therefore expected to steer well clear of tough decisions on pressing issues like the Futenma base and the TPP and to focus instead on vague grand designs for the future.
How best to respond to North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile threat will be a key item on the agenda, which will probably also include bolstering the bilateral alliance through the lessons learned during Operation Tomodachi, the humanitarian mission led by the U.S. military last year after the March disasters, as well as broadening and deepening relations amid Washington’s strategic shift toward Asia.
“Noda will likely confirm that Tokyo is doing all that it can to assist Washington in responding to security issues pertaining to North Korea,” said Anthony DeFilippo, a professor at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and an expert on the two countries’ strategies toward Pyongyang.
“The U.S. and Japan are very likely to follow the playbook they agreed to less than a year ago in Washington, at a meeting of the U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee,” DeFilippo said. “Both countries agreed (at the meeting) to improve their capability to react to security contingencies in the (Northeast Asia) region, to work to prevent military (activities) that threaten regional security, and to increase joint military exercises.”
The Obama administration’s recent Asia “pivot” has drawn much attention in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, but it remains uncertain to what extent Obama and Noda will discuss Washington’s increased focus on Asia, and the implications for Japan and Northeast Asia.
Military and policy experts see the strategic shift as a new opportunity to cooperate more closely on long-term defense issues.
“It’s a good time for Japan to start discussions with the U.S. on a mid- to long-term security strategy,” Noboru Yamaguchi, a professor of military history and strategy at the National Defense Academy, recently wrote. “In fact, the two countries have come to the same conclusion: they need to make utmost efforts to engage China and hedge against its rise by seeking better relations (with Beijing), while preparing for a worst-case scenario (at the same time).”
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank, called for creation of formal bilateral procedures in the area of crisis management.
“Given the repeated tensions in Northeast Asia, the U.S. and Japan should formalize mechanisms for crisis-management coordination,” Smith said. “The alliance should have a long-term strategy that consolidates U.S. and Japanese facilities.”
Still, rhetoric on long-term strategic cooperation can’t gloss over the fact that the long-stalled relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma remains unresolved, hindering the overall realignment of American forces in Japan.
And with no swift solution in sight, Tokyo and Washington may find it difficult, if not impossible, to realize their goals, especially as Congress is in no mood to entertain vague-sounding and expensive future grand plans.
Earlier this week, Washington and Tokyo were stunned when Sens. Jim Webb, Carl Levin and John McCain, powerful lawmakers opposed to the current Futenma relocation plan, told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta they are also against a new bilateral proposal to return some land on U.S. military installations in Okinawa to Japan, citing cost and logistical concerns.
However, the two countries agreed in a joint statement Friday to transfer about 9,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam and elsewhere, leaving about 10,000 in the prefecture.
Given the current sensitivity in Tokyo and Washington about moving the Futenma facility, and the continued strong resistance and opposition from most Okinawans, it would likely take a miracle to see a breakthrough at Monday’s meeting.
That said, Japan’s possible participation in the TPP is clouded in even more uncertainty, further restricting the two leaders’ options.
Congress appears skeptical despite Tokyo’s assurances that if it is allowed to join the free-trade bloc, it would finally resolve long-standing complaints from U.S. firms that prohibitive import tariffs are blocking them from tapping Japan’s market.
Obama, who needs a November win in Michigan, where carmakers have long complained of Japan’s closed market, and can ill afford a battle with his local Democratic allies, may be less inclined to push for a commitment from Noda on the TPP compared with their meeting in New York last September.
For his part, Noda has to tread carefully over Japan’s TPP engagement in his talks with Obama and choose his words carefully to express Tokyo’s stance on the issue, especially as a cross-party group of Diet members on Tuesday submitted the signatures of 321 lawmakers opposed to joining the TPP.
One other issue could be aired at Monday’s meeting — an international treaty on cross-border child custody disputes.
In November, Noda told Obama that legislation was in the works on the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. A bill to amend domestic laws and enable Japan to sign the treaty was submitted to the Diet last month, and Noda is expected to update Obama on its current status.
But American parents whose children were taken to Japan by estranged Japanese spouses feel there is little cause to celebrate.
“Discussion will likely be limited to the fact that Japan is still ‘planning’ to accede to the Hague Convention. Most likely, existing cases (of abducted children) will not even be discussed, because the U.S. government doesn’t want to ‘rock the boat’ with Japan,” said Paul Toland, a U.S. Navy officer and coleader of a group pressuring Obama and Congress on the issue.
“There has been a lot of talk, but very little action that would result in children being returned by the Japanese government.”