Last updated: August 30, 2011 8:40 pm

US rolls eyes at Japan’s PM revolving door

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When Junichiro Koizumi became Japan’s prime minister in 2001, he got the royal treatment from George W. Bush: a weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat – hospitality that signalled the US’s “favourable feeling” towards its top Asian ally, as Mr Koizumi put it at the time.

A decade later, Yoshihiko Noda, who was confirmed on Tuesday as Japan’s sixth prime minister in five years, will be lucky to get a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama when he makes his first visit to the US as leader next month. Instead, he will probably have to settle for a chat on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, analysts say.

“If he doesn’t get a White House meeting, that would be a real indication that the White House is treading more gingerly than they did when they embraced [Naoto] Kan following [Yukio] Hatoyama,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for a New American Security, referring to Mr Noda’s two predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan.

Naoto Kan, the outgoing prime minister, had been scheduled to meet Mr Obama at the White House until it became clear he would step down. Now Mr Noda’s staff will be trying to book him time in Mr Obama’s calendar.

Japan has been the US’s closest partner in Asia, with its 50-year-old military alliance forming the pillar of regional stability. But there is a growing level of frustration in Washington with the steady succession of short-term prime ministers since Mr Koizumi left office in 2006, as well as disappointment with the performance of the DPJ, which finally took power in 2009 after years in the political wilderness.

Video: Japan’s revolving door for prime ministers

Yoshihiko Noda

Yoshihiko Noda will be Japan’s 14th prime minister in 20 years. How did his predecessors fare?

In public, the White House welcomed Mr Noda’s appointment. “The relationship between the US and Japan is based on common interests and common values, and I look forward to working with prime minister Noda to tackle the broad range of economic and security issues that require our attention,” Mr Obama said on Tuesday.

But privately, officials are rolling their eyes over yet another leadership change in Japan.

“As dependable as the tide washes ashore, Japan gets a new prime minister,” said Bruce Klingner, an Asia specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, describing Washington’s fatigue with Japan’s political system.

The upheaval means that Washington does not view it as worthwhile to expend much effort on new Japanese leaders.

“There is no question that the musical chairs in Japan has undermined the seriousness with which Washington views any individual prime minister,” said Gordon Flake, a Japan expert who heads the Mansfield Foundation think-tank in Washington.

“The feeling is that it’s not worth investing the time because they are not going to last long,” said Mr Flake.

That sense will only deepen with Mr Noda, given that he is unlikely to be in place after the next general election in 2013.

However, there are some reasons for Washington to cheer Mr Noda’s win.

It puts another nail in the political coffin of Ichiro Ozawa, the former DPJ leader who is viewed less favourably in Washington, and probably knocks him out of contention for the party leadership. That would pave the way for Seiji Maehara, a former foreign minister, to take over once Mr Noda has tackled the difficult task of boosting the economy following the March earthquake, analysts say.

“Most people in Washington are more comfortable with Maehara because he is pro-alliance, pro-American,” said Mr Flake.

Furthermore, despite the presumption that Mr Noda will be a transitional leader, he still represented an improvement, said Michael Green, who was Mr Bush’s top Asia adviser.

“Hatoyama was dreamy and populist and completely inefficient, and Kan went nowhere,” Mr Green said. “But Obama will take Noda a bit more seriously and will recognise that Noda is a realist. The president is a pragmatist and a wonk, and for those reasons they will click.”

Still, the US would be unwise to hope for any progress on the most pressing issue facing the alliance: the relocation of the US military base on Okinawa to a less-crowded part of the island. The move is so controversial that Mr Noda will hardly want to use any political capital on it, given the challenges he faces on the economic front.

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