WASHINGTON - The United States praised Japan's latest prime minister on Jan. 19 and expressed hope that he would stick around long enough to build a lasting relationship with Washington.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, said the United States was impressed with the administration of Yoshihiko Noda, who took office in September. He is the third prime minister since the Democratic Party of Japan swept to power in September 2009.
He said Noda has worked well with the United States on issues including regional security and the U.S.-backed trans-Pacific trade pact that Tokyo has expressed interest in joining.
He said, however, that Noda faces a tough fight at home, where he is trying to increase the sales tax to rein in the country's fiscal deficit.
"I have to say, on some level we are really rooting for him," Campbell told the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
"We want to start to build up a track record with the leadership of Japan," Campbell said, lamenting the conveyor belt of premiers and foreign ministers in recent years. That, he said, has hindered building the kind of personal rapport that helps diplomacy.
"What is difficult is when you finally start to get the measure of the man or the person, then you have a new leader to deal with," he said.
Campbell stressed it was not for the United States to determine who holds office, and that Washington has had good relations with the previous prime ministers, but he said "a degree of continuity" would help American foreign policy toward such an important ally.
While Washington may be rooting for Noda, his support numbers in Japan have tumbled since September.
His tax plans have divided Japan's parliament as well as his own party. There also is public frustration over the lackluster economy, which has been in the doldrums for much of the past two decades, and faltering reconstruction efforts following last March's earthquake and tsunami that triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
Campbell said the emergency assistance the United States gave after the quake has impressed on Japan the importance of the alliance and the American troop presence that many there had viewed as a burden.
The United States has a defense treaty with Japan and retains nearly 50,000 troops there, the core of America's military presence in Asia. That provides security to Japan, which has territorial disputes with rising military power of China and faces potential missile threats from North Korea.
But the basing of U.S. troops in Japan is a point of contention, particularly on the southern island of Okinawa where more than half of them are based. Despite support from Japan's government for U.S. plans to relocate some of the troops, locals want them off the island entirely.
Campbell said he would travel to Japan soon with a senior U.S. defense official and hold talks on the issue.
At a separate event in Washington on Jan. 19, a former senior U.S. diplomat specializing in Japan defended the relocation plan, saying it would reduce the U.S. military presence on the main island of Okinawa from 19 percent of land area to 12 percent.
Kevin Maher, former director of the State Department's Japan desk, said the plan, spelled out in a 2006 agreement, had been hobbled by the failure of Japanese governments to explain to its parliament and public how vital the U.S. alliance is to Japan's security.
Maher told the Heritage Foundation think tank that the military basing issue would not be resolved under the prevailing political culture that stresses the need for consensus-building.
He said that trend has stymied government decision-making for years, including during the nuclear crisis when reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were entering meltdown. He was more optimistic about the prospects for the country under Noda's leadership.
Maher resigned last year following a controversy over comments he made about Okinawans that he says were misreported. He has since written a best-selling book in Japanese titled: "The Japan That Can't Decide."
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