BEIJING — As Japanese Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko visited the White House Monday, the continued strength of the U.S.–Japan relationship was a central message. But this first Washington summit of U.S. and Japanese leaders since the Democratic Party of Japan took control in 2009 was overshadowed in the transpacific news cycle by the U.S. relationship with China.
The timing of the Noda visit may well have been designed to set the stage for the U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, to occur this week in Beijing with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner leading a 200-strong U.S. delegation.
The U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia is a major concern in China, and U.S. leaders may have sought to reassure Japan that it is still a centerpiece of U.S. strategy in Asia and the Pacific.
If all had gone as planned, the administration could have enjoyed an Asia-focused news cycle all week, as the Japanese leader visited, followed by the meetings in Beijing.
But in the last days of preparation for the Japan summit, the U.S. government was confronted by a much more high-profile challenge: the escape of Chen Guangcheng a well known blind activist from extrajudicial house arrest, and his apparent flight to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
As it happens, the first question for Obama in the Noda–Obama press conference was about Chen, not about Japan (though the reporter also asked Noda about Japan’s response to a potential North Korean nuclear test).
[Obama acknowledged he’s aware of “press reports” on the Chen case, but wouldn’t make a statement except to say the U.S. government always brings up human rights in its meetings with China.]
A lesser-known disappointment for some about the U.S.–Japan meeting is that it did not include an announcement that Japan would join the eight countries (including the United States) currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement that does not include China but does include other East Asian countries.
There is significant opposition to the TPP overall, mostly over its intellectual property measures that some view as a rehash of the SOPA/PIPA fight and over a perceived lack of transparency in the negotiations. But the greater opposition to the specific question of Japanese participation comes from sectors in Japan that would lose some existing trade protections, and from the U.S. auto industry.
In their White House statement, both leaders mentioned that TPP talks would continue, but the issue lies largely unresolved. Meanwhile, the U.S.–Japan relationship still spends time on the disposition of the U.S. base at Futenma, the challenge of North Korea, and rather generalized concerns about China.