WASHINGTON (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met with President Barack Obama on Monday, looking to reaffirm Japan's strong alliance with the U.S. and boost his leadership credentials as his popularity flags at home.
Noda, who came to power in September and is Japan's sixth prime minister in six years, faces huge challenges in reviving a long-slumbering economy and helping his nation recover from the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.
His Oval Office meeting and working lunch with Obama, to be followed by a joint news conference and then a gala dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, could offer Noda some brief relief from domestic woes. The two sides are determined to show that U.S.-Japan ties are as close as ever, particularly after the assistance from the U.S. lent following the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant.
The two leaders made no comments as the White House let reporters and photographer witness the start of their Oval Office meeting.
The U.S. alliance with Japan, the world's third-largest economy, is at the core of Obama's expanded engagement in Asia — a diplomatic thrust motivated in part by a desire to counter the growing economic and military clout of strategic rival China.
Their meeting takes place during a delicate time in U.S.-China relations, as the two world powers reportedly negotiate an asylum deal for a blind Chinese legal activist who escaped from house arrest. Activists say he is under the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, but U.S. officials have yet to comment on the diplomatically sensitive case.
Obama and Noda are expected to say they want to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance. The U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan, and both sides never tire of saying that their defense cooperation underpins regional peace and security.
Days before Noda's visit, the U.S. and Japan announced an agreement on shifting about 9,000 Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The plan would spread U.S. forces more widely in the Asia-Pacific as part of a rebalancing of U.S. defense priorities after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a move also aimed at easing what Okinawans view as a burdensome U.S. military presence and goes some way to ameliorate a long-term irritant in bilateral relations. But there's still no timetable and the plan faces opposition in Okinawa and in the U.S. Congress.
Among other issues for discussion Monday will be North Korea's recent failed rocket launch and expectation it could soon undertake its third-ever nuclear test, democratic reforms in Myanmar and the international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
Noda is the first Japanese leader to be hosted at the White House since his Democratic Party of Japan, which had an initially awkward relationship with Washington, came to power in the fall of 2009. The party had at first favored a foreign policy more independent of the United States.
Noda is seen in Washington as capable and practical, and the Obama administration will be hoping he can weather his political problems and stick around longer than his immediate predecessors. His poll numbers have dwindled to below 30 percent as he pushes an unpopular rise in a consumption tax to tackle Japan's vast national debt and looming social security crisis to cope with the nation's aging population.
No breakthroughs on trade were anticipated at Monday's summit. In November, Noda signaled Japan's interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact under negotiation by nine nations and a key plank in U.S. trade strategy to crank up its exports to support America's fragile recovery after the global slowdown.
While Noda is believed to be personally supportive of declaring Japan's intent to join the talks, he faces opposition at home, even within his own party. The pact could demand an assault on the heavy subsidies enjoyed by Japan's farmers.
Noda also faces an uphill battle to persuade Japan to restart dozens of nuclear power plants that were idled as a safety precaution after the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant after last year's quake and tsunami. The plants were a source of about one third of Japan's power needs, and last week Japan reported its largest annual trade deficit ever, after decades of surpluses, as oil and gas imports grow.
U.S. companies are major players in Japan's nuclear sector, and the White House may be looking for reassurance that the plants will go back on line. Japan is likely interested in natural gas exported from the U.S.