Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in his meeting yesterday with US President Barack Obama, was 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 last year 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, due to be followed by a gala dinner hosted by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, could offer 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 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant in March last year.
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.
The US has about 50,000 troops in Japan, and both sides never tire of saying that their defense cooperation underpins regional peace and security.
Among the issues for discussion will be North Korea’s recent, failed rocket launch and expectation it could soon undertake its third-ever nuclear test. They will also discuss 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. When the party came to power in 2009, it had favored a foreign policy more independent of the US. He and Obama are due to hold a joint news conference.
Noda is viewed in Washington as capable and practical, and the Obama administration will be hoping he can weather his political problems and stick around longer than his immediate predecessors. His poll numbers have dwindled to below 30 percent as he pushes an unpopular rise in a consumption tax to tackle Japan’s vast national debt and looming social security crisis to cope with the nation’s aging population.
Days before Noda’s visit, the US and Japan announced an agreement on shifting about 9,000 US Marines stationed on Okinawa that would serve to spread US forces more widely in the Asia--Pacific as part of a rebalancing of US defense priorities in the aftermath of a decade of war in the greater Middle East.