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Atmosphere tense at Obama-Noda Summit

Date Posted: 2011-09-30

U.S. President Barack Obama wasted no time spelling out expectations of Japan as he met for the first time with Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s new Prime Minister.

It was an “unexpectedly tense atmosphere” during the summit on the sidelines of the United Nations opening in New York City, says a Japanese government official present at the meetings. “Obama jumped right into the main issues without much in the way of preliminary niceties,” the official noted. “I thought he didn’t give much leeway.” Although Japan’s responsibilities in restoring the nation following the great earthquake and tsunami last March 11th was a high priority, the American president spelled out expectations on the U.S. military issues in Japan.

Prime Minister Noda reassured Obama “the people of Okinawa also have a strong feeling of wanting to avoid a permanent base at Futenma,” he said, promising “I will make every effort to explain what the central government has in mind in order to gain their understanding”, noting there’s been little progress toward moving Futenma to a location in the Henoko district of Nago City, a sparsely populated area in the northern reaches of the island. Noda signaled a desire to make good on the Futenma resolution as a means of demonstrating good faith in improving relations between the U.S. and Japan. “I was able to make a good start in building a personal relationship of trust with the president,” Noda said, “in order to resolve the outstanding issues facing the two nations.”

Obama pressed hard on Futenma, says Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Campbell was at the meeting with Obama, noting Obama’s been facing pressure from Congress over the U.S. troops issue in Okinawa. The Senate has withheld all budget money requested by Obama for moving Marines from Okinawa to Guam in line with the Futenma agreement. “Both sides understand we are approaching a period where you need to see results,” said Campbell, adding “that was made very clear by the president.”

Thus far, little headway’s been made in the realignment process, which involves building the new airfield at Camp Schwab with a pair of V-shaped, 2,500-meter runways extending into Oura Bay, to relocate Futenma in exchange for moving 8,000 Marines to Guam. The 2014 completion date deadline has already been shifted by Japan and the U.S. as Okinawa, which hosts more than half the 47,000 American troops in Japan, has balked at supporting the concept. Today, even American lawmakers are starting to speak out that the relocation project is extremely expensive and unworkable.

Noda, Japan’s sixth prime minister in only five years, says rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake is his top priority. The March 11th earthquake and tsunami saw more than 20,000 killed or missing, while destroying a key nuclear power plant and three reactors at Fukushima No. 1 plant.

Japan’s Defense Minister listened to the two countries’ leaders talk about Futenma, then declared that Japan and the United States are both responsible for finding a solution to the base relocation deadlock. Yasuo Ichikawa says the two sides need to work together to resolve the issue, agreeing that the Japanese government is facing difficult decisions, given the hostility of local opinion in Okinawa.

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