Last Stop: Yokohama

President Barack Obama embarks on a trip to Asia next week with a message, previewed today in an address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Hawaii, about U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. The president is scheduled to visit India, Indonesia, and South Korea and will make a final stop in Yokohama, Japan, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, November 13–14, and engage various leaders on the margins of that meeting. The president’s visit to Japan presents an opportunity to demonstrate U.S. initiative on the question of regional economic integration and reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Q1: What is on the agenda for APEC?

Japan has identified four main themes for this year’s summit: promoting regional economic integration with an eye toward a Free Trade Area for the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP); a growth strategy for the region focused on balanced (savings/consumption patterns), sustainable (green technology), inclusive (spreading the benefits of trade within countries), and knowledge-based (improving growth potential through innovation) growth; human security, including counterterrorism, food security, and preventing the spread of infectious disease; and strengthening APEC’s capacity to achieve these goals through economic and technical cooperation. The United States and Japan are coordinating closely on APEC as President Obama will host next year’s summit in Hawaii. On October 27, Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara issued a fact sheet highlighting joint efforts in four areas: food security; women’s entrepreneurship; climate change; and emergency preparedness.

Q2: How about a U.S.-Japan bilateral meeting?

President Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan are scheduled to meet on November 13, their third encounter since Kan took office in June. The two leaders last met in September amid a heated dispute between Japan and China over a September 7 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku islands. Kan and Obama agreed at that time to consult closely on maritime issues, and yesterday, during a joint press conference in Hawaii, Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Maehara expressed concerns about China’s restricted exports of rare earth metals, once again signaling China’s assertiveness as a prevalent theme in bilateral discussions.

Other potential agenda items include an ongoing impasse over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa; negotiations over host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan; the situation in Afghanistan; North Korea and Iran; and bilateral cooperation on clean energy and nuclear nonproliferation. The APEC agenda naturally lends itself to dialogue on economic issues, and Kan recently expressed interest in joining trade negotiations under the rubric of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is divided on the issue.

Q3: What are the expectations for U.S.-Japan relations?

President Obama last visited Japan in November 2009 and met with Kan’s predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, who reportedly said “trust me” with regard to implementing a bilateral agreement to relocate Futenma. But Hatoyama then stalled, promised to remove the base from Okinawa altogether, and subsequently concluded there was no other alternative to the existing agreement before resigning abruptly in early June. The impasse over Futenma has hijacked the bilateral agenda over the last year, and Kan sought to change the tone upon taking office. He has expressed a desire to move forward with the Futenma agreement and made a concerted effort to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance to Japanese foreign policy. In an address to the Diet (parliament) on October 1, Kan identified security, economy, and people-to-people exchange as three pillars for the bilateral relationship and emphasized cooperation on global issues such as climate change. The September 3 announcement of unilateral sanctions against Iran was particularly noteworthy in highlighting Japan’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and its global leadership role. The Senkaku incident also facilitated close coordination between Washington and Tokyo, which suggests potential for robust bilateral consultations as the Obama administration continues to stress the centrality of alliance relationships to its Asia strategy.

Q4: Alliance reaffirmed?

The dynamic in the U.S.-Japan relationship has improved under Kan, and the components of a comprehensive framework for bilateral cooperation are in place. The question is whether political turmoil in Japan, specifically policy disputes within the DPJ, will prove an insurmountable obstacle. Obama’s upcoming trip, in a year marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, was long envisioned as a catalyst to revitalize a relationship that has evolved over time in the face of myriad regional and global challenges. Reporters might not receive grandiose joint vision statements as evidence, but there is a fair chance Yokohama will be remembered as a moment when the U.S.-Japan relationship started to turn the corner after a year of drift.

Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions
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