US President Barack Obama and Yukio Hatoyama, Japanese prime minister, on Friday pledged to deepen and develop their nations’ half-century-old alliance, waving aside worries that Tokyo’s historic change of government would push the Pacific powers apart.
But at a closely watched summit on the first day of Mr Obama’s first Asian tour as president, the leaders could not conceal continuing differences on the most pressing problem for the alliance: the plan to move a US Marine base on the island of Okinawa.
The demands by Mr Hatoyama’s Democratic party for a rethink of the relocation of the Futenma air base have fuelled concerns in some Washington circles that the DPJ’s landslide election victory threatens US-Japan ties.
Clearly hoping to dispel such doubts, Mr Hatoyama and Mr Obama used their joint press conference to stress their commitment to an alliance founded in a landmark 1950 treaty.
Mr Hatoyama said next year’s 60th anniversary was an opportunity for talks to “deepen and develop” the alliance to make it “even more constructive and future-oriented” – a call given a ringing endorsement by Mr Obama.
The president said: “[The anniversary] ... represents an important opportunity to step back and reflect on what we’ve achieved, celebrate our friendship, but also find ways to renew this alliance and refresh it for the 21st century.”
He said that though both he and Mr Hatoyama had won power on promises of change, there should be no doubt that a US-Japan alliance, which was “essential” to both nations and to the region, would endure.
Both leaders also underlined the breadth of ties between the world’s two largest economies, issuing joint documents on planned co-operation on energy, climate change and global nuclear disarmament.
Mr Obama said Japan’s pledge to give up to $5bn (€3.4bn, £3bn) in aid to Afghanistan over five years, a dramatic increase, “underscores Japan’s prominent role” in efforts to help the fragile state.
Despite such emphasis on co-operation, questions remain about how diplomatic policy will develop under the 10-year-old centre-left DPJ, which in August ended the long domination over Japanese politics of the strongly pro-US Liberal Democratic party.
The DPJ has called for a review of the agreement sealed under the LDP to move the Futenma Marine air base from the middle of a crowded Okinawan city to a less populated but scenic bay on the island, which most Okinawans oppose.
During a testy visit to Japan last month, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, upset DPJ leaders by brusquely rejecting talk of a rethink, telling them it was “time to move on”.
Washington has since tried to be more conciliatory, agreeing to the creation of a joint working group to discuss aspects of the relocation and a wider “realignment” of US forces in Japan, to ease the burden on Okinawa by transferring 8,000 Marines to the US territory of Guam.
But Friday’s press conference made clear the two sides remain far from agreement. Mr Hatoyama said the working group was intended to “resolve” the Futenma issue, noting the expectations raised among Okinawans by his party’s campaign promises to move the base off the island.
Mr Obama, by contrast, insisted that the working group would “focus on implementation of the agreement that our two governments reached”.
In spite of the continued differences, US officials reiterated how highly the Obama administration valued its relationship with Japan, citing Mr Obama’s decision to start his trip in Tokyo – as had Hillary Clinton after she was sworn in as secretary of state in February. The Futenma controversy was “one operational subset of a huge, healthy and very complicated alliance relationship”, a senior White House official said.