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