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JAPAN: Obama Visit Hailed, But Left Crucial Questions Unanswered

TOKYO, Nov 15 2009 (IPS) - Setting foot on the Land of Cherry Blossom over the weekend, U.S. President Barack Obama waxed nostalgic, recalling his first visit to Japan as a young boy, when his mother brought him there.

“I have never forgotten the warmth and the hospitality that the Japanese people showed a young American far from home,” he said.

But more than the nostalgia, what struck a harmonious chord in the audience that came to listen to his much-awaited speech on his first state visit to Japan was an earnest promise he made—that is, to move toward “a more balanced relationship with Asia”—a direction that to many contrasted with the previous Bush administration’s.

Obama said, “the United States may have started a series of ports and cities along the Atlantic Ocean, but for generations we have also been a nation of the Pacific,” noting U.S. and the region are bound by this “great ocean.” He added: “We are bound by our past—by the Asian immigrants who helped build America… We are bound by Asian Americans who enrich every segment of American life, and all the people whose lives, like our countries, are interwoven.”

In his keynote speech on Saturday at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, Obama conceded that the U.S. was dependent on the Asian economy. Hence he vowed to pursue greater trade with Asia. He specifically highlighted the important role that the U.S.-Japan relations would play in bringing his administration’s aspirations for the Asia-Pacific region to fruition.

“Our efforts in the Asia-Pacific will be rooted, in so small measure, through an enduring and revitalised alliance between the United Sates and Japan,” he said.

“Since taking office, I have worked to renew American leadership and pursue a new era of engagement with the world based on mutual interests and mutual respect, ” he declared. “We believe that continued integration of economies in Asia will benefit all nations.”

Obama remarked that one of the lessons of the recession that hit the U.S. and then the rest of the globe last year to the American society was the limits of depending primarily on American consumers and Asian exports to drive growth.

China necessarily forms part of that picture of a “balanced relationship with Asia.” In his speech, Obama said he welcomed “China’s appearance on the world stage as a growing economic force.

“The U.S. does not seek to contain China; the rise of a strong and prosperous China can be a source of prosperity for all nations,” he said. He added that the two countries might not agree on issues such as human rights and religious freedom, but they can work together without malice.

Such cordiality was not to be extended to North Korea. Obama said if the reclusive regime stopped building nuclear weapons and got rid of the ones it already has, the United Nations sanctions would end and it could “come out from the cold and isolation.”

He warned that North Korea should return to the Six-Party Talks—a multi- country forum for discussing and negotiating North Korea’s nuclear programmes—and pursue nuclear nonproliferation. “For decades North Korea has chosen a path of confrontation and provocation. It should be clear where this road leads,” he said.

The six-party talks consist of South Korea, Russia, Japan, China, the United States and, until it bolted the forum in April this year, North Korea. Since the talks began in April 2003, numerous rounds of negotiations had been conducted. These led to a September 2005 agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its quest to become a nuclear power, only to renege on its commitment when it decided to quit the forum.

Koij Murata, a professor of international security studies at Doshisha University, noted that President Obama’s speech was well received, having been interrupted more than a dozen times by applause and even getting a standing ovation at the end.

“It was a positive step,” he said of Obama’s diplomatic pronouncements, which included his remarks at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama Friday night. Yet he found Obama’s and even the Japanese premier’s speeches short on specifics.

“They are good at talking about global issues such as a nuclear-free world, climate change, and energy, but they don’t talk about new initiatives,” he said. “Instead, they avoided answering these immediate bilateral issues.”

Such issues included the succeeding steps the U.S. and Japan are expected to take in relation to North Korea. Murata could only predict what would happen in the days ahead. He said that the Obama administration would move to bilateral talks in the near future, and then the six-party talks would resume.

He worries, though, that Tokyo might be further isolated in the framework of the talks, since the issue of abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea between the 1970s and 1980s—still a highly emotional issue in Japan—is far from resolved.

It does not help that of the five other countries in the forum, only Japan maintains a hard-line stance toward North Korea while the other, led by the U.S., decided two years ago that they would have to trust the ‘hermit state’ if they were to resolve the contentious issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

This apparent turnabout, led by the U.S., proved to be a major letdown to Japan, which has always maintained that if North Korea could not be trusted on the abduction issue—since the latter had repeatedly said that some of the abducted citizens were already dead, a claim Japan refuses to believe—Tokyo would be hard put to trust it on other crucial issues, notably denuclearisation.

Obama specifically spoke of a crucial partnership between Japan and the U.S. on stopping nuclear proliferation. Nagasaki mayor Tamisha Taue praised Obama’s stance on this issue. He said Nagasaki would welcome Obama “from the heart” and expressed hope that the U.S. president’s promise to visit his city alongside Hiroshima “will be realised as early as possible.”

More than 200,000 Japanese died in Nagasaki and Hiroshima toward the final stages of World War II when the U.S. conducted two atomic bombings against Japan.

But such a pronouncement, too, “lacked substance,” said Murata. “We need the substance.”

The perceived omission of crucial details in Obama’s specific stance toward certain crucial issues involving the U.S.’s relations with Japan became more evident when at the joint press conference on Friday, Obama, asked if he favored his country’s bombing of Japan’s two cities, gave no reply.

Still another contentious issue that found no answers during the Obama visit was plans to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. This, too, was not directly addressed by either head of state, Murata noted.

Thousands of people protested through the streets of Ginowan City in Okinawa last week seeking to pressure the Japanese government to stop plans to allow a new airfield with two runways to be constructed at Henoko, a less crowded part of Okinawa. Under a 2006 agreement between Japan and the U.S. a replacement for the Futenma military airfield will be built off the coast of Nago’s Henoko area in Okinawa.

Hatoyama said last year that if he became prime minister he would work hard to have Futenma—which currently sits right smack in the heart of Ginowan City and home to some 4,000 marines and sailors—relocated outside Japan. The U.S. has ruled that out.

In his remarks during the press conference in Tokyo, the U.S. president said he was open to having more discussions on the fate of the U.S facility. “We have agreed to create an expeditious group to work on our agreement on U.S. forces in Okinawa,” said Obama. Nothing more was said.

Murata said Obama was postponing finding a solution.

From Tokyo, Obama headed to Singapore on Saturday to attend the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO summit and become the first U.S. president to sit down with all 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations, leaving fundamental questions unanswered in a land that he said held some of the precious memories of his young life.

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