Obama in Japan: Reassuring an old friend

TOKYO, Japan — It was a speech that managed to lift the gloom on a wet, windswept morning.

Speaking to a packed concert hall in Tokyo on Saturday, the U.S. president, Barack Obama, assured his hosts that the estrangement of the Bush era was over. Japan and the U.S., he declared, are “equal partners.”

Calling himself “America’s first pacific president,” Obama ended the first leg of his nine-day visit to Asia with a foreign policy address that went some way towards calming fears in Japan that its importance is diminishing in the eyes of a White House administration eager to improve ties with China.

In a speech that took in North Korea’s nuclear program, Burma’s human rights record and climate change, Obama reaffirmed Japan’s centrality to U.S. engagement in Asia, as both countries seek a cohesive response to China’s growing economic and military strength.

"Our efforts in the Asia Pacific will be rooted, in no small measure, through an enduring and revitalized alliance between the United States and Japan," Obama said.

He added: "I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home. The fortunes of America and the Asia-Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before.”

It is an upbeat message he will repeat later this week in Singapore, China and South Korea. But in Tokyo, optimism is tempered by a simmering dispute over the future of the U.S. military footprint on the southern island of Okinawa, home to just over half of the 47,000 American troops based in Japan.

As GlobalPost reported in August, the election of a center-left government in Tokyo led by Yukio Hatoyama has cast doubt on a 2006 agreement to close the sprawling Futenma Marine Corps base in Ginowan, central Okinawa, and build a replacement in Nago, a town in a less densely populated part of the island.

The transfer of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam by 2014 – a $10 billion plan, two-thirds of which would be paid for by Japan – will only happen if a replacement is found for Futenma.

Hatoyama, who, like his American counterpart was elected on a promise of radical change, is committed to reviewing the plan as part of his blueprint for a new foreign policy less beholden to the wishes of the U.S.

A potentially embarrassing confrontation over Futenma was avoided after Obama agreed to set up a high-level working group to discuss the base’s future. Hatoyama, meanwhile, softened the blow of his decision to withdraw Japanese naval ships from a refuelling mission in the Indian Ocean with a pledge of $5 billion dollars in aid for Afghanistan.

 

Obama may have been spared an inauspicious start to his Asian tour, but the window for diplomatic fudging on the base issue will soon close. If anything, the clear personal chemistry between the two will only add to U.S. military pressure to reach agreement by the end of the year, an aspiration shared by some of Hatoyama’s cabinet colleagues.

"This is a difficult issue,” Hatoyama acknowledged. “But as time passes, it could become even harder to reach a solution.” If, as some expect, he decides to wait to take Okinawa’s political pulse after Nago elects a mayor in January, the momentum could be lost both here and in the U.S., where Congress is already considering slashing the relocation budget.

Futenma aside, there was much on which the leaders could agree: ambitious CO2 reductions by 2050, nuclear disarmament, a stable Korean peninsula and freedom for the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Obama was at pains to accentuate Japan’s place in the U.S. diplomatic pecking order, noting that Hatoyama’s predecessor had been the first foreign leader to visit him at the White House. He shared happy memories of a boyhood visit to Japan, during which he developed a taste for green tea ice cream, and thanked the people of the fishing town of Obama for their endorsement of his bid for the presidency.

If the Japanese and South Korean legs of the Obama Tour of Asia 2009 are about deepening existing friendships, Obama’s visits to Shanghai and Beijing offers a chance to resuscitate a waning one.

After less than 24 hours in Tokyo, Obama will spend three days in China, where he will discuss the yuan’s devaluation and call for more opportunities for U.S. exporters in its vast market.

The potential for a falling out between Hatoyama and Obama over China failed to materialize, despite the Japanese leader’s recent enthusiasm for the idea of an East Asian community bound by a single currency. For both men, recalibrating their regional priorities is the only response to the stark reality of a new economic and military power in their midst.

The prospect that China will replace Japan as the world’s second biggest economy in the next year should not be cause for alarm, Hatoyama said. "It's natural when we consider the size of China's population. There's no need to feel pessimistic about it," he said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia. “Rather, I'm optimistic about Japan. We should run an economy that suits our size.

After lunch with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, Obama departed with more goodwill than he might have expected a few weeks ago as he takes his mission of engagement to Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul.

In the summer, a Pew Research Center survey found that 85 percent of Japanese agreed with his approach to world affairs. Nothing he said in Tokyo this weekend will have put those stellar ratings in jeopardy.