Obama, Noda seek close ties amid skepticism over goals

Tokyo leader hard-pressed to deliver amid stiff home opposition


With concerns growing over China’s military buildup and strains on the Korean Peninsula, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda became the country’s first leader to formally meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House since the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in 2009.

Noda, who arrived in Washington Sunday, is visiting at a time when the United States hopes to bolster its alliance with Japan to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region. This has been seen as a good chance for Noda to build up a strong and productive friendship with Obama.

But there is skepticism about whether Noda was able to earn Obama’s trust as a partner who can fulfill Washington’s expectations as the prime minister is facing an uphill battle at home over his key policy goals, including a sales tax hike and Japan’s entry into talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement.

Indeed, Japan’s role seems to have become more important for the United States as the Obama administration starts to strategically shift its military focus to the Asia-Pacific region, apparently responding to China’s growing assertiveness in the region’s waters.

Gist of Washington summit statement


The two countries:

• Agree the U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

• Pledge to fulfill their roles and responsibilities to advance regional and global peace, prosperity and security.

• Agree to pursue their respective commitments to enhance bilateral security and defense cooperation, including the development of a dynamic Japanese defense force and U.S. strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region.

• Vow to promote ongoing bilateral consultations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks.

• Affirm their commitment to cooperate in the development of clean and renewable energy as well as peaceful, safe and secure use of nuclear energy.

• Pledge to strengthen bilateral human exchanges and increase the number of students and researchers attending each other’s schools and universities.

• Agree to cooperate in such areas as the high seas, space and cyberspace.

As fears mount about a possible third nuclear test by North Korea or other provocative actions, the summit also appears to have provided a window of opportunity for the two leaders to confirm their cooperation to prevent Pyongyang from threatening regional peace and security.

“We recognize that the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain the foundation of the security and prosperity of our two nations but also a cornerstone of regional peace and security,” Obama said at a joint press conference Monday following the summit.

Amid drastic changes in Asia, the United States “appreciates that Noda has moved the U.S.-Japan alliance back to the center of Japanese strategy,” The Washington Post reported recently.

In an editorial, the paper indicated that Obama views Noda favorably when compared with his two immediate predecessors, Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama, the first prime minister of the DPJ-led government who resigned in early June 2010.

Tokyo’s ties with Washington frayed after Hatoyama sought to make the country more independent of U.S. security influence and move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa, a proposal that ran against the Japan-U.S. accord reached in 2006.

If Noda can give Obama the impression that he is more dependable than his predecessors, his trip to the United States will have been “successful,” a Japanese government official said.

After their summit, Noda and Obama issued the “United States-Japan Joint Statement: A Shared Vision for the Future,” with Obama saying, “We have agreed to a new joint vision to guide our alliance, and help shape the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”

But the outlook for Noda’s almost eight-month-old government is not bright, as many lawmakers, even those within the ruling DPJ, oppose his bid to double the 5 percent sales tax.

Noda may not be able to continue to cooperate with Obama to map out the details of how to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance to secure stability in Asia as the political environment surrounding him has become increasingly harsh, raising the possibility of Japan’s foreign policy falling into disarray, analysts said.

Even before his trip, Noda, who took office last September, gave up on formally declaring Japan’s participation in negotiations on the U.S.-led TPP during the summit with Obama in order to avoid further ire within his party.

If Washington starts to regard Noda as a prime minister who cannot move things forward, “Mr. Noda could find it difficult to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance with the U.S. government in the medium and long term,” said Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, executive vice president of Sojitz Research Institute.

If a bill to hike the sales tax rate in two stages to 10 percent in October 2015 is rejected in the Diet, Noda would probably be forced to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election, or step down.

“We hope Mr. Noda will not become the last prime minister to hold formal talks with Obama under the DPJ-led government,” another Japanese official said.