Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America

POLITICS: Okinawa Air Base a Thorn in U.S.-Japan Ties

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jan 12 2010 (IPS) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling in the South Pacific this week on a trip to strengthen the longtime U.S. alliances with Australia, work to improve relations with New Zealand and to bring some forward momentum to U.S.-Japanese negotiations over the controversial relocation of the U.S. air station in Okinawa.

While not traveling to China and Japan, as U.S. President Barack Obama did in November, the role of an increasingly powerful China in the Pacific, tensions in the U.S.-Japanese relationship, and vocal Chinese objections to the U.S. decision last week to sell nearly one billion dollars in anti-missile batteries and missiles to Taiwan are likely to hang heavy over Clinton’s trip.

Kicking off the nine-day trip in Honolulu, Hawaii, Clinton met Tuesday with Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in meetings intended to reduce tensions over the currently stalled agreement to realign U.S. forces based at Futenma, a U.S. Marine Corp. air station on Okinawa.

“I don’t think we’re looking at breakthrough [in the meetings between Clinton and Okada]. What we’re looking at is a feverish attempt to look beyond Futenma,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told IPS. “Whether they’ll be successful is another question.”

Prior to taking office in September 2009, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s election platform included a call for reexamining Japan’s ties with the U.S. with a particular focus on the 50,000 U.S. military personnel based in Japan.

“Hatoyama wants to show that he is looking out for Japan’s interests and wants a more ‘equal’ relationship but he’s not going to win votes by undermining U.S.-Japan relations. He is trying to walk a tough line to be seen as standing up for ‘greater equality’ but not undermining the [U.S.-Japan] relationship,” said Cossa.

Clinton has also been careful in the lead-up to the meetings to play up the strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance and emphasise the policy arenas in which the U.S. and Japan have cooperated.

“We’ve had a very positive set of interactions with the new Japanese leadership,” Clinton told reporters on Monday. “We’re grateful that they are playing such a leading role in Afghanistan. Their commitment, a very large trust fund, five billion dollars, dwarfs anything that any other country has done.”

Indeed, Japan has played a noticeable role in coordinating donor meetings for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and has worked with the U.S. and other allies in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

After delivering a speech in Honolulu on U.S. Asia-Pacific policy, Clinton will continue to Papua New Guinea to call attention to environmental protection issues and women’s rights.

Clinton will then travel to New Zealand and Australia, where the war in Afghanistan, nuclear and trade issues, China’s rising influence in the Pacific, and Iran’s nuclear programme will likely be on the agenda.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Clinton will meet on Friday in a meeting predicted to cement relations between the U S. and New Zealand.

Key’s centre-right government, which took power in 2008, is widely seen as more friendly to the U.S. than the Labour Party leaders who held office for the previous nine years and maintained more strained relations with Washington.

New Zealand is also likely to lobby Clinton to give momentum to the “Transpacific Partnership” free trade pact which would include the U.S., New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei, Australia, Singapore, Chile and Peru.

On Sunday, Clinton and U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates will meet with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and their Australian counterparts.

These meetings will likely focus on the war in Afghanistan, and Clinton and Gates are expected to lobby for the Australians to increase their commitment of 1,500 troops during the U.S. “surge” of an additional deployment of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

While China is not on Clinton’s itinerary, the effects of recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will loom over the trip.

The Obama administration has been quick to point out that the deal did not include F-16 fighter jets or Blackhawk helicopters, a decision that the White House was quick to point to as a concession to Beijing’s objections to the arms deal.

China has voiced concern over the U.S. decision to go through with the one-billion-dollar arms deal negotiated under the George W. Bush administration as well as Obama’s decision to meet with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

On Monday, Clinton, eager to dispel the notion that U.S.-China relations are deteriorating, told reporters that the U.S. and China have a “mature relationship” and that “it doesn’t go off the rails when we have differences of opinion”.

On Obama’s upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama Clinton said, “We have a difference of perspective on the role and ambitions of the Dalai Lama, which we’ve been very public about.”

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