Leaving woes at home, Japan PM visits White House

Associated Press Modified: April 30, 2012 at 11:30 am •  Published: April 30, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda met with President Barack Obama on Monday, looking to reaffirm Japan's strong alliance with the U.S. and boost his leadership credentials as his popularity flags at home.

Noda, who came to power in September and is Japan's sixth prime minister in six years, faces huge challenges in reviving a long-slumbering economy and helping his nation recover from the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

His Oval Office meeting and working lunch with Obama, to be followed by a joint news conference and then a gala dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, could offer Noda some brief relief from domestic woes. The two sides are determined to show that U.S.-Japan ties are as close as ever, particularly after the assistance from the U.S. lent following the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered a meltdown at a nuclear plant.

The two leaders made no comments as the White House let reporters and photographer witness the start of their Oval Office meeting.

The U.S. alliance with Japan, the world's third-largest economy, is at the core of Obama's expanded engagement in Asia — a diplomatic thrust motivated in part by a desire to counter the growing economic and military clout of strategic rival China.

Their meeting takes place during a delicate time in U.S.-China relations, as the two world powers reportedly negotiate an asylum deal for a blind Chinese legal activist who escaped from house arrest. Activists say he is under the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, but U.S. officials have yet to comment on the diplomatically sensitive case.

Obama and Noda are expected to say they want to strengthen the U.S.-Japan security alliance. The U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan, and both sides never tire of saying that their defense cooperation underpins regional peace and security.

Days before Noda's visit, the U.S. and Japan announced an agreement on shifting about 9,000 Marines stationed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The plan would spread U.S. forces more widely in the Asia-Pacific as part of a rebalancing of U.S. defense priorities after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a move also aimed at easing what Okinawans view as a burdensome U.S. military presence and goes some way to ameliorate a long-term irritant in bilateral relations. But there's still no timetable and the plan faces opposition in Okinawa and in the U.S. Congress.