WASHINGTON, United States of America – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Sunday started a visit to the United States aimed at turning the page on an uneasy few years in the alliance, days after a deal on a thorny troop dispute.
Noda, who arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for his three-day trip, is the first Japanese premier to visit Washington for a solely bilateral visit since his center-left Democratic Party of Japan took power in 2009 elections.
At a White House meeting Monday, Noda is expected to talk to President Barack Obama about boosting defense ties and tensions over North Korea. But the visit will also be heavy on symbolism as the two sides hope to show that the relationship is back on track.
“I would like to exchange views candidly on the vision of a future US-Japan alliance. I want the meeting to be fruitful so that the public can see clear results,” Noda told reporters on departure from Tokyo.
The United States and Japan announced on Friday an agreement to move 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, addressing a persistent source of friction. The subtropical island is host to half of the 47,000 US troops in Japan.
Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said the deal “breaks a very long stalemate on Okinawa that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems.”
But the agreement will preserve a key element of a 2006 plan between the two countries — building an air base on a quiet seashore. The two sides had hoped the 2006 arrangement would end concerns by moving the base out of a crowded urban area, but some activists pressed for its complete removal.
Weston Konishi, director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, said the deal was “a good face-saver for both sides” but went little beyond previous statements.
The latest accord showed that the United was flexible and “willing to make a good-faith effort,” while for Noda, it showed that he was “serious about trying to do his best to reduce the footprint” of US troops in Okinawa, he said.
“It’s a win-win for both governments, but whether this leads to a final resolution of the problem, I think, is still debatable,” Konishi said.
Obama had made an early effort to reach out to Japan, inviting then-prime minister Taro Aso as his first White House guest in hopes of dispelling concern that the new administration would ignore Asian allies as it focused on managing the complicated relationship with a rising China.
But Yukio Hatoyama, the first prime minister after the Democratic Party of Japan ousted the long-ruling conservatives, dismayed the United States by flirting with China and insisting on renegotiating the Okinawa deal.
US officials initially saw hope in Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, but he faced wide criticism for his handling of the massive March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami tragedy in which US troops mounted a round-the-clock rescue effort.
The Obama administration has hailed Noda, who after taking office last year took the politically risky decision of voicing interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an emerging US-led free trade deal across the Pacific Rim.
But Noda has faced heated opposition, including from some members of his party along with farmers who have led a major protest campaign to voice fear that the trade agreement would jeopardize their livelihoods.
A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that the United States no longer expected Noda to announce during his visit a formal entry into talks with the nine nations negotiating the deal.
Like his predecessors, Noda has watched the approval rating of his government fall precipitously. He has put a priority on doubling Japan’s sales tax to close the soaring public debt in the world’s third largest economy.
The Obama administration will instead focus largely on symbolic gestures to show warmth toward Japan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will welcome Noda to a gala dinner and a private viewing of an exhibition on samurai.
The United States will also unveil a long-discussed proposal to gift 3,000 dogwood trees to Japan in a sign of gratitude marking 100 years since Tokyo delivered Washington’s now famous cherry trees. – Agence France-Presse