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On Asia Tour, Obama Tests New Dynamic With Japan

November 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama kicked off a nine-day trip to Asia on Friday with a visit to Japan, where the newly elected prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is seeking a more "equal partnership" with the U.S. and the closing of an unpopular Marine base in Okinawa. Jeffrey Brown reports.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is a Pacific nation, and we will be deepening our engagement in this part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president pledged that renewed role shortly after arriving in Japan, the first stop on his nine-day tour.

Tokyo has been America’s key ally in Asia since the end of World War II, but must now cope with China’s continuing rise as a regional and global power. By next year, China could eclipse Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

And, on this trip, the president will spend three days in China and just 24 hours in Japan. President Obama sought to reassure Japan’s new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

BARACK OBAMA: Our alliance will endure and our efforts will be focused on revitalizing that friendship so that it’s even stronger and more successful in meeting the challenges of the 21st century. It’s essential for the United States, it’s essential for Japan, and it’s essential for the Asia Pacific region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hatoyama called the U.S.-Japanese alliance the cornerstone of his country’s foreign policy. But he also stressed, it’s an evolving relationship.

YUKIO HATOYAMA, prime minister, Japan (through translator): As time changes and as the international environment changes, there is a need for us to further develop and deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance to make it an even more constructive and future-oriented alliance.

JEFFREY BROWN: The prime minister took office in September, after a sweeping election victory that ended 50 years of dominance by a more conservative ruling party. And he signaled his intention to reshape ties with Washington.

Sheila Smith is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

SHEILA SMITH, Council on Foreign Relations: At the top of their list of their foreign policy manifesto, you know, their principles or goals of their party, coming into power was to — you know, to acknowledge the centrality of the U.S.-Japan relationship, but to create a more equal relationship in the U.S.-Japan relationship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Already, Hatoyama has reached out to strengthen ties with China and others in the region and to assert a measure of independence from the U.S.

Early on, his government announced it would pull out of the Indian Ocean mission to refuel warships that support U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Instead, Japan has refocused on civilian and humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, pledging $5 billion earlier this week.

President Obama praised that move today.

BARACK OBAMA: This underscores Japan’s prominent role within a broad international coalition that is advancing the cause of stability and opportunity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Closing the Okinawa base

JEFFREY BROWN: A far thornier issue is Okinawa, where most of the 47,000 American troops in Japan are stationed. Long-simmering Japanese resentment erupted in 1995, after U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year old Okinawan girl.

SHEILA SMITH: It's deeply contentious. The Okinawan people have had 75 percent of the U.S. military presence stationed in Japan. And, since the mid-1990s, when that accident -- when that crime happened, there's been a really strong sense within the prefecture that they would like the burden to be shared by others in Japan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hatoyama has suggested moving a huge U.S. Marine base off Okinawa entirely, and he made clear today he wants action soon.

YUKIO HATOYAMA (translated): It will be a very difficult issue for sure, but, as time goes by, I think it will become even more difficult to resolve the issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, President Obama said the two countries would review the issue yet again.

On other subjects, dealing with global warming, the North Korean nuclear threat, and the global economy, there was broader agreement. The president heads next to the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Singapore. He will attend meetings with the 21 leaders, including, for the first time, Myanmar.

Sheila Smith says there will be tailored messages on this trip, but one big theme.

SHEILA SMITH: In each of the places he is going, he has something he wants to say. And the administration has its agenda quite clearly laid out. The big-picture message is, America is engaged in Asia; Asia is our future.

And that's the big message.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before leaving Tokyo, the president has a chance to fill in that big picture, delivering what's billed as a major foreign policy address.