Japan trying to repair ties with Washington


Yoshihiko Noda, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, is applauded at the lower house of parliament after being elected Japan's prime minister in late August. (Haruyoshi Yamaguchi/Bloomberg)
September 17, 2011

Japan trying to repair ties with Washington

The new Japanese government is trying to earn back trust from the United States, its most important ally, by showing support for initiatives that recent prime ministers in Tokyo have let languish.

The ideas include support for a multi-nation free-trade agreement and for allowing easier exports of Japanese weapons technology, ventures that have strong support in Washington. New Japanese leaders have also signaled their intention to carry out a long-stalled agreement with Washington that would put the U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa on a more solid footing.

But it is not clear whether Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has the political capital to carry out these plans, which face strong opposition in Japan, while also focusing on domestic concerns, particularly those related to fiscal tightening and disaster reconstruction.

It’s a familiar problem in Japan, where each of the previous five prime ministers was forced from office before acting on foreign policy goals. The latest set of initiatives is particularly contentious in Japan; the agriculture lobby opposes trade liberalization, while many in Noda’s ruling party oppose any loosening of the country’s pacifist defense posture. As for Okinawa, any push to carry out a 2006 plan that would relocate the Marine base in Futenma will draw fury from islanders who oppose the construction of a new facility.

Government officials say that the arm-twisting necessary to win support for the deals means they are bound to fail if Noda’s tenure is as short as his predecessors’.

“Noda’s biggest mission — it’s just to stay in office longer,” said a Japanese senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely share his opinion. “Just to show stability in Japanese politics.”

Noda represents the Democratic Party of Japan, which took power two years ago after decades in the political opposition. The party’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, drove U.S.-Japan relations to a low point when he suggested that the Futenma base should be moved from Okinawa entirely — not rebuilt on a reclaimed site in the north. Hatoyama also proposed the creation of an East Asia community, akin to the European Union, an idea that some in Washington saw as a sign of a closer Japanese alignment with China.

But Noda has reiterated the longtime Japanese position that the U.S.-Japan alliance is vital to the stability of “not only the Asia-Pacific region, but also the world.” That view has been reinforced by concern in Washington and Tokyo about the unchecked nuclear program in North Korea and increased military spending in China.

Noda has already taken several steps that were welcomed in Washington. He backed away from the idea of an East Asian community. He also picked two pro-Washington officials for key policy positions, naming Johns Hopkins-educated Akihisa Nagashima as a defense adviser and China hawk Seiji Maehara as a policy adviser.

“With Noda, I think there’s much more convergence of approach and thinking in security policy, and there is more trust in the alliance,” said Patrick Cronin, the senior Asia director at the Center for a New American Security.

In a speech last week in Washington, Maehara suggested that the government loosen its so-called three principles on arms exports, a de facto ban that prevents Japan from participating in multi-nation technology development, including fighter jets and battleships. In theory, Japan and the United States can collaborate on such work — but the inability to then sell the technology removes the incentive, U.S. officials said.

Noda is scheduled to meet with President Obama next week in New York, where the two will be attending a U.N. meeting.

Outlining his major policy agenda this week, Noda did not mention the arms export ban. But he did mention his desire to relocate the Futenma base in line with the 2006 agreement, which calls for the construction of a new marine air station on a sparsely populated northern part of the island. The Futenma base is currently wedged in the middle of Ginowan City, leading to concerns about noise pollution and potential aircraft accidents.

Skeptics in Tokyo and Washington doubt whether the 2006 agreement can be carried out, given fierce Okinawan opposition. As part of the plan, the United States has pledged to move 8,000 Marines to Guam, but funding for that project has slowed as the United States faces growing fiscal concerns and looming defense spending cuts.

by Chico Harlan

TOKYO — The new Japanese government is trying to earn back trust from the United States, its most important ally, by showing support for initiatives that recent prime ministers in Tokyo have let languish.

The ideas include support for a multi-nation free-trade agreement and for allowing easier exports of Japanese weapons technology, ventures that have strong support in Washington. New Japanese leaders have also signaled their intention to carry out a long-stalled agreement with Washington that would put the U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa on a more solid footing.

But it is not clear whether Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has the political capital to carry out these plans, which face strong opposition in Japan, while also focusing on domestic concerns, particularly those related to fiscal tightening and disaster reconstruction.

It’s a familiar problem in Japan, where each of the previous five prime ministers was forced from office before acting on foreign policy goals. The latest set of initiatives is particularly contentious in Japan; the agriculture lobby opposes trade liberalization, while many in Noda’s ruling party oppose any loosening of the country’s pacifist defense posture. As for Okinawa, any push to carry out a 2006 plan that would relocate the Marine base in Futenma will draw fury from islanders who oppose the construction of a new facility.

Government officials say that the arm-twisting necessary to win support for the deals means they are bound to fail if Noda’s tenure is as short as his predecessors’.

“Noda’s biggest mission — it’s just to stay in office longer,” said a Japanese senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely share his opinion. “Just to show stability in Japanese politics.”

Noda represents the Democratic Party of Japan, which took power two years ago after decades in the political opposition. The party’s first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, drove U.S.-Japan relations to a low point when he suggested that the Futenma base should be moved from Okinawa entirely — not rebuilt on a reclaimed site in the north. Hatoyama also proposed the creation of an East Asia community, akin to the European Union, an idea that some in Washington saw as a sign of a closer Japanese alignment with China.

But Noda has reiterated the longtime Japanese position that the U.S.-Japan alliance is vital to the stability of “not only the Asia-Pacific region, but also the world.” That view has been reinforced by concern in Washington and Tokyo about the unchecked nuclear program in North Korea and increased military spending in China.

Noda has already taken several steps that were welcomed in Washington. He backed away from the idea of an East Asian community. He also picked two pro-Washington officials for key policy positions, naming Johns Hopkins-educated Akihisa Nagashima as a defense adviser and China hawk Seiji Maehara as a policy adviser.

“With Noda, I think there’s much more convergence of approach and thinking in security policy, and there is more trust in the alliance,” said Patrick Cronin, the senior Asia director at the Center for a New American Security.

In a speech last week in Washington, Maehara suggested that the government loosen its so-called three principles on arms exports, a de facto ban that prevents Japan from participating in multi-nation technology development, including fighter jets and battleships. In theory, Japan and the United States can collaborate on such work — but the inability to then sell the technology removes the incentive, U.S. officials said.

Noda is scheduled to meet with President Obama next week in New York, where the two will be attending a U.N. meeting.

Outlining his major policy agenda this week, Noda did not mention the arms export ban. But he did mention his desire to relocate the Futenma base in line with the 2006 agreement, which calls for the construction of a new marine air station on a sparsely populated northern part of the island. The Futenma base is currently wedged in the middle of Ginowan City, leading to concerns about noise pollution and potential aircraft accidents.

Skeptics in Tokyo and Washington doubt whether the 2006 agreement can be carried out, given fierce Okinawan opposition. As part of the plan, the United States has pledged to move 8,000 Marines to Guam, but funding for that project has slowed as the United States faces growing fiscal concerns and looming defense spending cuts.

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