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U.S. Presidential visit brings no solutions

Date Posted: 2009-11-19

Barack Obama made an historic visit to Japan, meeting with the Emperor and senior government and political leaders, but offering no solutions or answers to contentious issues.

The U.S. President spent considerable time discussing Okinawa issues with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, but didn’t go much further in Saturday's address than agreeing to "move expeditiously" through a joint working group to implement the agreement that the two reached in 2006 on restructuring U.S. forces in Okinawa. Obama’s focus centered on his intentions to build strong ties with Asia, while stressing that the Japan alliance remains at the center of his regional policies. He emphasized he’s focusing on strengthening ties with China and encouraging Beijing to be more actively involved in its international role.

“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 as he worked to dispel frustrations over a believed waning level of U.S. interest in the bilateral relationship.. He stressed the U.S. and Japan have its foundation based on “security and prosperity” for the two countries. "Asia and the United States are not separated by this great ocean — we are bound by it," Obama said. Obama encouraged all nations, including Iran and North Korea, to fulfill their responsibilities in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, urging the North to return to six-party talks and calling on Pyongyang to disclose details of the Japanese abductees.”

Although Hatoyama and Obama shared a firm handshake in front of the cameras at their bilateral meeting, the meetings weren’t as cordial and warm as they tried to portray. The two leaders worked hard, analysts say, to avoid the whole Futenma Marine Corps Air Station issue during the talks.

Koji Murata, a political science professor at Doshisha University, explains the Hatoyama administration is only focusing on general, long-term goals and avoiding difficult issues that need to be dealt with more urgently. "The Democratic Party of Japan just wants to focus on clean, global, long-term topics," he said. During the campaign for the Aug. 30 general election, Hatoyama as president of the DPJ promised voters that a government led by his party would be tougher in diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. and seek "an equal footing" with Washington. The DPJ insisted that the Futenma air base should be moved outside Okinawa or even the country, giving more consideration to the antimilitary sentiment of Okinawans. Avoiding the Futenma issue during Obama's stay in Tokyo "was convenient for both sides," Murata said.

"Japan didn't want to bring it to the table because it knew it couldn't solve it before Obama's arrival, and on the other hand, the U.S. is dealing with various difficult issues like Afghanistan and (domestic) health insurance, and it didn't want to expose disagreements" with Japan, said Murata. U.S. and Japanese government teams opted to establish ministerial-level working groups just before the two leaders met, but “this is merely a way to buy time—there is no idea behind” the working group, Murata says. During a joint news conference with Hatoyama, Obama stressed the importance of implementing the 2006 accord. The working group "will focus on the implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached with respect to the restructuring of the U.S. forces in Okinawa and we hope to complete this work expeditiously," Obama said. "Our goal remains the same — and that is to provide for the defense of Japan with minimal intrusion on the lives of the people who share the space."

The Mayor of Ginowan City, where Futenma now exists, is urging Hatoyama not to give in to the U.S. on the airbase relocation issue. Yoichi Iha says the Prime Minister “has the political responsibility to abide by promises made by his party to move Futenma.” He says Hatoyama would “be committing suicide” if his government gives a seal of approval to the decisions made by the previous Japanese government.”

Hatoyama has refrained from making any concrete promises, only saying that the working group would reach a conclusion as soon as possible "I told President Obama that we take the Japan-U.S. agreement with the previous government seriously," Hatoyama said Friday evening. "At the same time, I told him that it is also a fact that our party campaigned (for the Lower House election) for the base to be moved out of the prefecture or out of the country."

The entire issue is turning fully political in Okinawa, where all four Diet Seats were won by DPJ candidates. Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation think tank, says Okinawa lawmakers who disagree with the government’s ultimate decisions on Futenma should consider leaving the party. "If the DPJ lawmakers in Okinawa are dissatisfied, they should leave the DPJ, or the people of Okinawa should just vote for somebody else in the next election," Watanabe said. "This is what democracy is all about — people always have a choice."

Watanabe said Hatoyama and Obama were correct during the summit to focus on the fundamental alliance between Japan and the U.S. because that will be the foundation for future negotiations on specific policies, including the Futenma air base. "The core of the meeting lies in the discussion of the significance the Japan-U.S. alliance, and what they can do for the security of the world and the region," Watanabe said. "This is the perfect opportunity to think of what Japan and the U.S. can do in a positive light."

Watanabe also points out that realistically, time is running out to solve the Futenma issue as the U.S. is trying to enact its defense budget for 2010 by the year's end. Many critics are urging Hatoyama to follow the 2006 accord. "The actions of the government are always caught in the gap between public sentiment and bilateral ties with other countries," Watanabe said.

Mizuho Fukushima, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, a minor coalition partner of the DPJ, voiced disappointment with Obama's remarks for lacking an in-depth reference to the issue of U.S. military bases in Okinawa. "He referred little to contentious issues, including on Okinawa bases, which is currently the most crucial, so I was disappointed somewhat," said Fukushima, who is also state minister in charge of consumer affairs.

Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, says he’s disappointed in the two countries’ leaders for now talking how to resolve the Futenma issue. “It was disappointing that no specific reference was made,” he said.

Obama didn’t win points with the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either. Although Hatoyama had expressed hope Obama would visit the two cities, Obama only said a visit to the cities in the future would be meaningful, but noted he had no immediate travel plans. “Although he came all the way to Japan, there were no comments that went further than his Prague speech in April, during which he outlined his vision for a world that’s free of nuclear weapons,” said Koichi Kawano, the chairman of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs.

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