Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will make his diplomatic debut overseas in the United States, where he is expected to hold amicable talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on strengthening relations. But Noda's meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the U.S. visit could be trickier.
During his Sept. 20-24 stay in the country, Japan's sixth prime minister in five years will also deliver a speech Sept. 22 to a United Nations meeting on nuclear safety and another at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23.
Noda's first visit abroad as prime minister is intended to rejuvenate Japan's diplomatic activities, which have stagnated in the two years of the Democratic Party of Japan's reign.
In his meeting with Obama on Sept. 21, Noda is expected to reiterate that Japan's relationship with the United States comes first and foremost in his diplomatic policy.
"The Japan-U.S. alliance forms the basis of the nation's security and diplomatic policies," Noda said in his speech in the Diet on Sept. 13. "We will build solid trust between the leaders of the two nations as soon as possible and will evolve the Japan-U.S. relationship into a more mature one that should be realized in the 21th century."
Japan's ties with the United States became frayed under the administration of Yukio Hatoyama, who had promised to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, out of the prefecture.
Naoto Kan, who replaced Hatoyama after he resigned over the Okinawa issue, tried to improve ties with Washington. Kan was scheduled to visit the United States in early September, but he stepped down as prime minister in late August.
The Noda-Obama meeting will likely last for only a half hour and be used mainly for the two leaders to introduce themselves.
But the two are expected to reconfirm a Japan-U.S. agreement reached in May 2010 on relocating the Futenma air station to the Henoko area of Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture.
"We will make out best efforts (on the Futenma issue) in accordance with the U.S.-Japan agreement. I will maintain this stance in discussions with Obama," Noda said in the Upper House on Sept. 16.
However, opposition within Okinawa Prefecture over the relocation to Nago is so strong that even some U.S. lawmakers have started to suggest reviewing the plan. And a view has spread within the Noda government that Washington has become impatient over Tokyo's lack of progress in implementing the 2010 agreement.
Noda could be forced to make further promises that favor Washington if Obama pushes the issue at the meeting.
Japan's participation in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is another issue that will likely be on the table at the Noda-Obama meeting. Noda has taken a pro-participation stance toward the TPP. But since becoming prime minister, he has been reluctant to mention the TPP, likely in consideration of measures to promote Japan's agriculture industry, which is strongly opposed to the free trade agreement.
"We will bring the issue to a resolution soon," Noda has said.
Obama said Washington plans to develop a TPP framework through agreements among TPP members and prospective member countries by early November, when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is held in Hawaii.
With Washington having set a target date, trade industry officials are watching to see if Noda moves on the TPP issue in his meeting with Obama.
Obama also likely wants to use the talks with Noda to see how far Washington can solidify its relations with the new Japanese government in dealing with regional issues in East Asia as well as global matters.
Washington needs the Noda government's cooperation to strengthen its relations with an increasingly powerful China and to deal with North Korea's nuclear programs. Obama is expected to reconfirm U.S.-Japan cooperation in handling these matters in East Asia, while seeking support from Japan in other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.
A high-ranking U.S. official said Washington would closely watch how Noda evaluates U.S. efforts to help Japan recover from the Great East Japan Earthquake. The official also indicated the United States would continue providing assistance for the rebuilding work in the Tohoku region.
Obama may also have in mind the U.S. presidential election in November 2011. The official said the U.S. economy, which is slumping and plagued with bloated fiscal deficits, would be among the crucial subjects at the meeting with Noda.
While Noda and Obama may look to the future, the Japanese prime minister's meeting with Lee, also on Sept. 21, could dwell on the past.
In an article he wrote for a monthly journal, Noda said, "We have to prepare ourselves to protect our territory."
He also wrote that Class-A war criminals in World War II were not war criminals.
The article raised concerns in China and South Korea that Japan was being led by another hard-liner nationalist.
The Japan-South Korea relationship has been deteriorating, raising the prospect that the Noda-Lee meeting will not be held on amicable terms.
The countries' dispute over the Takeshima islets (Dokdo in Korean) has intensified recently, and hard-liners in South Korea remain within the ruling Grand National Party. Lee may bring up the territorial dispute with Noda.
In addition, the issue of Japanese compensation for Korean "comfort women" who say they were forced to provide sexual services for Japanese soldiers during World War II has been raised again.
Tokyo's stance is that the compensation issue had been settled decades ago during negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between the two nations.
However, Seoul recently requested government-level discussions on compensation for the former comfort women, citing the Constitutional Court of Korea's ruling that Seoul's failure to make efforts to negotiate individual compensation claims with Tokyo was unconstitutional.
"(Seoul) cannot ignore the ruling by the constitutional court," a South Korean diplomatic said.
With the South Korean public demanding payments from the Japan government, Lee will likely directly ask Noda to take action on the issue.
If the Sept. 21 meeting ends on bad terms, Seoul could decline Tokyo's request for Lee to visit Japan as a state guest. Instead of such a high-level trip, Lee would come to Japan for working-level talks.
(The article was compiled from reports by Hiroshi Ito, Hajime Horiguchi and Yoshihiro Makino.)
- « Prev
- Next »