U.S.-Japan Summit Meeting
April 25, 2012
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan will meet with President Obama at the White House on April 30 to discuss a range of economic and security issues and reaffirm the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance in a regional and global context. Noda, who took office last September, met Obama twice last fall at the UN General Assembly in New York and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hawaii, but this will be the first bilateral summit in Washington since Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) assumed power in 2009. The two leaders are expected to issue a joint statement that should establish a strategic framework for alliance cooperation going forward.
Q1: What is on the agenda?
A1: During the bilateral meeting at APEC last November, Noda expressed Japan’s interest in potentially entering negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to which the United States is a party, and the two leaders will likely review the status of bilateral discussions on the matter. Noda had hoped to officially declare Japan’s desire to enter the negotiations at this upcoming meeting, but a lack of consensus within the DPJ and opposition to trade liberalization led by agricultural interests will likely force him to postpone a formal decision on TPP. The timing of any U.S. decision to invite Japan to participate in the negotiations also remains unclear, but the leaders can be expected to stress the potential of joint leadership in advancing the process of regional economic integration. The economic discussion might also center on Japan’s growth strategy, including energy policy, as well as the economic situation in Europe.
Obama and Noda also are expected to welcome progress in a recent review of a 2006 roadmap for the realignment of U.S. forces on Okinawa reflective of a larger strategic review of U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region. Media reports indicate that those discussions have centered mainly on the number of marines to be transferred from Okinawa to Guam and the return of military facilities to Okinawa. The two governments could issue a joint statement detailing progress to date and outstanding issues including the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a facility located in a heavily populated area in central Okinawa. Regional and global security challenges such as North Korea, maritime security, Iran, Afghanistan, and developments in the Middle East could also feature prominently in the discussions.
Q2: What are the stakes for Noda?
A2: Noda faces a divided legislature and has seen his approval rating slide below 30 percent due in large part to concerns over four politically sensitive priorities: a tax increase to shore up public finances; support for nuclear energy post-Fukushima; trade liberalization, namely TPP, as a driver of economic growth; and efforts to end an impasse regarding the relocation of U.S. troops on Okinawa. The outcome of the current legislative battle could determine Noda’s political fate, but he has declared these issues to be in Japan’s national interests and thus far shows no signs of relenting. Noda’s commitment to exploring TPP and addressing U.S. force posture on Okinawa has facilitated dialogue on the economic and security pillars of the U.S.-Japan alliance, and his visit to Washington presents a unique opportunity to set a clear trajectory for the bilateral relationship that contrasts starkly with the political turmoil he faces at home.
Q3: What does the agenda say about Japan’s role in U.S. regional strategy?
A3: Japan is at the center of the Obama administration’s efforts to rebalance U.S. diplomatic focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the two issues atop the bilateral agenda exemplify the importance of the bilateral alliance to U.S. regional strategy. The economic rationale for Japan’s involvement in TPP negotiations is clear: Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, and Tokyo’s participation would magnify the size of the agreement considerably. Joint participation in TPP would also afford Japan and the United States a chance to promote high standards for regional trade liberalization as the Doha Round of global trade negotiations under the rubric of the World Trade Organization flounders. Further, advancing an agenda for bilateral security cooperation supports the new strategic guidance for the U.S.
Department of Defense, emphasizing the centrality of alliance relationships in maintaining regional stability and prosperity. This is an important moment for the two leaders to review the strategic import of the U.S.-Japan alliance and document the breadth and depth of bilateral cooperation in that context.
Q4: What lies ahead?
A4: Japan has had six leaders in the last six years, and the prospects for political stability remain murky. Noda has thus far navigated a testy political environment well enough to generate momentum in the U.S.-Japan relationship, and the summit in Washington serves as evidence of his persistence. But Japanese politics remain unpredictable, and Washington will become increasingly consumed with U.S. electoral politics. The Obama-Noda summit is therefore critical in presenting a comprehensive agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance responsive to immediate challenges, reflective of common strategic objectives, and based on shared values and interests that can withstand any shift in political winds.
Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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