Obama Hosts Japan’s Noda for Talks on Military, Trade Relations

President Barack Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda hold talks today at the White House seeking to build on progress in easing strains in the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Their meeting will be the first since the U.S. and Japan last week announced an agreement to relocate about 9,000 Marines from Okinawa, addressing a source of friction between the two allies as Obama moves to broaden and realign the U.S. military and economic presence in the Pacific.

The U.S. and Japan are also discussing possible joint military training on ranges in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which would tighten coordination between their forces.

The U.S. is seeking to improve its relationship with Japan which became strained in 2009, Obama’s first year in office, when the Democratic Party of Japan took power under Yukio Hatoyama, according to Nick Szechenyi, deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy center, in Washington.

Hatoyama’s rhetoric during his tenure, which lasted less than a year, “created the perception of distance between the U.S. and Japan,” Szechenyi said.

Obama has made a point of focusing U.S. policy on the Pacific region. Part of that effort has been to press for a nine-nation trade accord, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has expressed interest in joining, as have Canada and Mexico.

Trade Talks

Obama, 50, and Noda, 54, who became prime minister last September, won’t be ready to announce a breakthrough on Japan joining, said an administration official who briefed reporters April 27 on condition of anonymity.

The proposed agreement with Australia, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei would be the biggest U.S. trade deal since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The Obama administration is seeking to complete negotiations this year.

The U.S. and Japan both have concerns about Japan joining the trade agreement, including insurance market access, and U.S. beef and Japan’s agricultural interests. There’s “no consensus in Japan on whether it’s in Japan’s interest to enter,” Szechenyi said.

U.S. assistance following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami last year “paved the way for a more constructive dialogue between the two countries,” Szechenyi said.

‘Vibrant’ Relationship

The Obama-Noda meeting is a “really an opportunity for the two leaders to show how vibrant” they want the relationship between the countries to be, he said.

Noda and Obama will hold a news conference after they meet privately. While Noda will not have a state dinner at the White House, he will be honored with a dinner by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat, and Republican John McCain of Arizona and Jim Webb of Virginia, said in a joint statement on April 26 that Noda’s visit is “an important opportunity to make additional progress toward our shared strategic goals for the alliance” and a chance to “reaffirm and deepen” the alliance.

At the same time, the senators have said Congress may reject any plan to move Marines from Japan until the Defense Department submits an independent assessment of its strategic posture in the region.

Under the agreement announced last week, troops will be transfered to Hawaii, Guam and Australia, creating a wider geographic footprint to deal with regional challenges, according a joint statement from Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka. About 10,000 U.S. Marines will remain on Okinawa.

Japan’s bill for the relocation of the U.S. Marines to Guam will be $3.1 billion in 2012 dollars, the defense official said. The U.S. is projecting the total cost of the military buildup in Guam at about $8.6 billion, including the portion paid by the Japanese government. The U.S. defense official said the amount is a preliminary estimate.

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