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Streltzov Dmitry, The US-Japan Summit in Washington Печать E-mail
11.05.2012 г.
Dmitry Streltzov

On April 30, 2012, for the first time in three years, Washington hosted an official summit between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and US President Barack Obama. The long interval between summits can largely be attributed to the poor political relations between Tokyo and Washington after the Democratic Party came to power in Japan in 2009. The party’s first head, Yukio Hatoyama, made Asia the country’s top foreign policy priority to balance Japan’s traditional reliance on unconditional US support on the international stage. However, Hatoyama was unable to fulfill his promise to address the relocation of the military base at Futenma, which has caused the most severe cooling of Japanese-American relations since the alliance was formed.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to the United States took place as Japan’s political crisis was growing, a crisis associated with the standoff in parliament between the ruling party and the opposition, which are roughly equal in strength. This crisis severely limits Noda’s opportunities for diplomatic maneuvers and breakthroughs. The two partners’ primary objective was to remove the relocation from its central position on the strategic relations agenda and make it a peripheral issue. That would bring balance to their strategic relationship and set things on an even keel so that the next stage can begin on a positive note.

Just before the summit began on April 27, the two sides worked out a joint statement assessing the 2006 roadmap. The document said that the plan to relocate the base must meet four criteria: It must be operationally viable, politically feasible, financially responsible, and strategically sound,

The statement contained an important addition to the previous version: It portrayed the relocation plan as the “only viable solution that has been identified to date.” In other words, the recent joint statement holds open the possibility of studying and adopting other relocation options. This wording is obviously based on a clear understanding that the plan for moving the base to Henoko (Camp Schwab) would clearly not be “politically feasible” in the face of the public outcry. According to the Japan Times newspaper, however, the reference to the plan as “the only viable solution” reflects official skepticism about proposals by some US senators to move the base to Kadena. The statement also reaffirmed the ceiling adopted in 2009 for Japanese costs associated with the relocation of Marines to Guam — $2.8 billion.

The summit yielded a joint statement entitled “A Shared Vision for the Future,” the first such document since 2006. It claimed that the US-Japan alliance “has steadily developed into a comprehensive partnership that contributes to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region” and described the military-political alliance as “the cornerstone of peace, security, and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.” The statement declared that “Japan and the United States pledge to fulfill our roles and responsibilities by utilizing the full range of capabilities to advance regional and global peace, prosperity and security.”

The statement says they will further enhance bilateral security and defense cooperation. For Japan, this means developing a dynamic defense in which its Self-Defense Forces should strengthen their early warning and intelligence collection capabilities in the Nansei Islands and Okinawa. The statement suggested that the United States will hold to its plans to reposition Marine Corps units in Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii and Australia to improve their deployment pattern in the region. Noda and Obama confirmed the effectiveness of an agreement to relocate the base and redeploy 9000 Marines from Okinawa and 5000 military personnel from Guam. Another step designed to reduce the burden of US military bases on Okinawa was the two leaders’ agreement to close five military installations south of the Kadena base and transfer the land vacated to its owners in three stages.

However, a concrete plan to relocate the Futenma base is missing from the summit’s outcome documents, and that is causing great dissatisfaction and Japan. This means the base will continue to operate in its old location for an indefinite period, and many people consider that the worst possible scenario for Japan. The joint statement by the governments of Japan and the United States expressing their intention to actively pursue projects to upgrade the Futenma base poured oil on the fire. The Japanese press reports that the United States has already submitted to Japan a $20 billion plan for modernizing the base over an eight year period starting in FY 2012.

By and large, we can say that the crisis in bilateral relations of several years standing is over. The parties actually agreed to defer a decision on the relocation issue for an indefinite period, allowing them to focus on high priority tasks concerning the development of alliance relations.

Among those tasks is the need to address challenges associated with China’s military and economic expansion. Although the summit’s official documents do not describe China as an immediate military threat, the Japanese prime minister and the US president discussed specific ways they can cooperate on the notorious policy of “containing” Beijing. They include combining the two countries’ financial resources to establish a combat training system and hold joint exercises on Guam and one of the northern islands of the Mariana Archipelago. It was decided that one unit of the Self-Defense Forces will be permanently based on Tinian Island to conduct joint training.

They also discussed a few coastal defense patrol boats that Japan had provided to the Philippines. This issue is particularly timely in light of the recent worsening of the situation in the South China Sea arising out of China’s territorial claims against the Philippines. Although the boat transfer runs counter to arms export restrictions, it can be justified as an action aimed at maintaining peace and international security. In any event, the export of military vessels and the deployment of troops for training outside Japan, which were discussed during the summit, are relevant to the very delicate subject of how to interpret Article 9 of Japan’s constitution. However, the specific agreements reached clearly indicate that the way Tokyo has interpreted the article for more than two decades remains unchanged.

Noda and Obama exchanged views on the situation in North Korea, noting the importance of cooperation to prevent further provocations by Pyongyang (this topic concerned the failed rocket launch in April 2012)

Another issue addressed during the summit was the Japan's inclusion in the talks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In November 2011, the Japanese Prime Minister announced that Japan will start consultations with all of the countries participating in the agreement. In a concession to the strength of the opposition to Japan’s participation in the TTP, Noda refrained during the summit from saying Japan would join the talks. He confirmed only that Japan and the United States will continue consulting on the issue of Japan’s inclusion in the negotiation process. For his part, Obama expressed a desire that Japan would liberalize its markets for autos, insurance and beef. Formal negotiations on a multilateral agreement are expected to begin this coming fall, so Japan must act quickly to define its position. According to some estimates, it will be announced at the Vladivostok APEC summit scheduled to take place in September. Japan and the United States also urged all of their partners in the region to make a positive contribution to establishing international norms of behavior through such forums as the East Asia Summit and APEC.

The United States and Japanese reaffirmed their countries’ intention to expand cooperation on improving the safety of nuclear reactors and developing alternative energy sources by applying lessons learned in coping with the effects of the Fukushima accident.

Decisions reached at this summit give Noda’s cabinet a respite on the foreign policy front. Future developments will largely depend on how Japan’s domestic political situation plays out. If the DPJ government fails to find an honorable solution to the current political crisis, the plans made at the summit will have to be implemented by a new government, which could be led by a member of a different political force.


Dmitry Victorovich Streltsov is head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.

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