WASHINGTON: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was meeting President Barack Obama today, looking to reaffirm Japan’s strong alliance with the US and boost his leadership credentials as his popularity flags at home.
Noda, who came to power in September and is Japan’s sixth prime minister in six years, faces huge challenges in reviving a long-slumbering economy and helping his nation recover from the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
His Oval Office meeting and working lunch with Obama, to be followed by a gala dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, could offer Noda some brief relief from domestic woes. The two sides are determined to show that US-Japan ties are as close as ever, particularly after the assistance the US lent following the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant. The US alliance with Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is at the core of Obama’s expanded engagement in Asia — a diplomatic thrust motivated in part by a desire to counter the growing economic and military clout of strategic rival China.
Their meeting takes place during a delicate time in US-China relations, as the two world powers reportedly negotiate an asylum deal for a blind Chinese legal activist who escaped from house arrest. Activists say he is under the protection of US diplomats in Beijing, but US officials have yet to comment on the diplomatically sensitive case.
Obama and Noda are expected to say they want to strengthen the US-Japan security alliance. The US has about 50,000 troops in Japan, and both sides never tire of saying that their defence cooperation underpins regional peace and security.
Days before Noda’s visit, the US and Japan announced an agreement on shifting about 9,000 Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The plan would spread US forces more widely in the Asia-Pacific as part of a rebalancing of US defence priorities after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a move also aimed at easing what Okinawans view as a burdensome US military presence and goes some way to ameliorate a long-term irritant in bilateral relations. But there is still no timetable and the plan faces opposition in Okinawa and in the US Congress.
Among other issues for discussion today will be North Korea’s recent failed rocket launch and expectation it could soon undertake its third-ever nuclear test, democratic reforms in Myanmar and the international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
Noda is the first Japanese leader to be hosted at the White House since his Democratic Party of Japan, which had an initially awkward relationship with Washington, came to power in the fall of 2009.