Washington seeks long-term leader for deeper ties

by Yasushi Azuma


The United States is tired of the frequent changes of prime minister in Japan in recent years and hopes to build a more robust relationship with Tokyo as a key partner in the Asia-Pacific region, experts say.

The last time a prime minister traveled to Washington and held talks with President Barack Obama was in February 2009, when Taro Aso was in office. Japan is on its third prime minister since then.

There had been plans for a trip by Yoshihiko Noda to Washington for talks with Obama this month, but the two countries postponed it to later in the year.

The Obama administration is finding it difficult to deepen ties with Japan as prime ministers have all been short-lived since Junichiro Koizumi held sway from April 2001 to September 2006.

“The prime ministers don’t stay in office long enough to build traction, to build a political understanding of where the goals in the relationship are and what we’re doing,” Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent interview.

After its historic win in 2009 over the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan was initially focused on efforts to build an administration, but the situation is getting better now, Smith said.

“Prime Minister Noda is very pragmatic. His meeting with the president (in Hawaii during the Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership forum summit), I think, was very positive,” she said. “He is someone with an agenda, who has commitments of his own, and the alliance is clearly a priority for him.”

Asked how long Noda will stay in power, Smith said, “We all hope that he will be successful in his effort to get Japan back on a strategic trajectory, and we hope he’s successful in bringing the party more fully into a governing position.”

Mike Mochizuki, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, also said it is about time Japan has a leader who can stay in power for a respectable period.

Regardless of party affiliation, Republican or Democratic, there is a wide consensus in the United States that Japan should be revitalized “to be a much more important voice in regional and international affairs,” Mochizuki said in a separate interview.

What the United States wants is “a stable and effective government” in Japan and Noda appears to be succeeding so far in providing stability, he said.

But it remains uncertain whether Noda can survive long as prime minister given the unstable power balance in the Diet and upcoming national elections, as well as divisions in the DPJ and the stalemate over contentious plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Mochizuki said.

If a double election is held in 2013 and the DPJ wins a majority in both Diet chambers under the leadership of Noda while managing to get his public approval rating up, he will likely stay in power for a long time, according to Mochizuki.

Noda, however, faces constant calls from the opposition camp to call a Lower House poll sooner.

Obama’s policy address in the Australian Parliament in November stressing the U.S. pivot toward Asia drew international attention as a strategy to counterbalance China’s growing clout.

“We have missed Japan the last couple of years as a proactive partner in the region,” Smith of CFR said. “What we need from Japan is that it comes back to being a full and proactive partner, not only with the United States, but also with others in the region.”

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said, “the U.S. will be asking Japan to assume a larger security role commensurate with its abilities . . . and will continue to press Japan to go beyond 1 percent (of its gross domestic product) for military spending.”

Noting that expectations for Japan are always high, Smith said, “The question still in most people’s minds is not that they don’t trust Japanese leaders, but that they don’t trust that they are going to be able to stay in power.”