After meeting Japan’s prime minister Monday, President Obama described the bilateral friendship as the “foundation of the security and prosperity of our two nations,” and the visit as “a milestone in the history of our alliance.”
The body language of the visit told a different story.
Obama held no state dinner for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda; that duty was left to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She, in turn, had to leave the dinner promptly: She was taking off for Beijing.
The summit rated brief news items in Tuesday’s Post and Wall Street Journal, and none in the New York Times. The news that came out of the leaders’ joint news conference focused on China and North Korea.
If you were Japanese, you might see a silver lining in all this: The summit didn’t get much attention because U.S.-Japan relations are trundling along relatively smoothly. The two nations completed, in time for Noda’s visit, an agreement on U.S. troop realignment that solved some long-standing issues while deftly deferring others. With China consumed by leadership purges and escaping dissidents, and North Korea about to explode another nuclear weapon, off the front page may not be the worst place to be.
Noda became the first prime minister from his Democratic Party of Japan to hold a summit with the U.S. president, and the summit was amiable; that may be enough to help him in Tokyo as he girds for a brutal political season.
But the low-key summit isn’t really a sign of success.
It’s a reflection of Japan’s continuing political paralysis. Combined with Obama’s inclination to avoid headaches in an election year, that made the summit a lost opportunity and a reminder of Japan’s inability to play a global role commensurate with its status as the world’s third-largest economy.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the lack of progress on trade ties. The United States is exploring a free-trade agreement with eight smaller Pacific nations. Noda would like Japan to be included in the negotiating group. This would be in Japan’s interest and in America’s — a free-trade agreement including Japan and other big economies will carry a lot more weight than one with the likes of Brunei, Vietnam and New Zealand.
But a variety of interests in the United States (Ford Motor Co., for example) would rather keep Japan out of the first round, and Noda’s inability to trump anti-trade interests at home (rice farmers, for example) gives the U.S. administration all the excuse it needs to stall. The most Obama could manage on the subject was: “We instructed our teams to continue our consultation regarding Japan’s interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Noda is Japan’s sixth prime minister in six years. He has bravely taken on a host of tough goals — expanding trade, raising taxes, reopening nuclear power plants — and he has to make progress on at least one of those in the coming months if he is to survive in power longer than his five predecessors.
If he makes it to a second year, maybe he’ll get dinner at the White House.