Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s new prime minister—the sixth in five years—has been handed a poisoned chalice. At 54, he inherits all of the problems that his predecessor Naoto Kan was grappling with during his 15-month tenure. His Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) remains divided and unpopular, the economy and overdue reforms are stalled, recovery in the devastated Tohoku region is proceeding very slowly, the reactors at Fukushima are still leaking radiation, the yen has appreciated to record highs, only 11 of the nation’s 54 reactors are in operation (worsening the trade deficit due to surging fuel imports), and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is listening to its inner Tea Party, stonewalling policy initiatives to address the problems it created.

On the foreign policy front, Prime Minister Noda has weathered criticism from Beijing over his controversial remarks that Class A war criminals are not really war criminals and that visits to Yasukuni Shrine should be at the premier’s discretion. He quickly back-pedalled, affirming he won’t visit Yasukuni. In the past, he has also been outspoken about the simmering territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/ Diaoyutai Islands. The dispute flared in September 2010, when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a fishing trawler crew in the surrounding waters after a ramming incident. Noda’s father was a paratrooper and he says that this upbringing influences his perspectives on security issues.

Not long after his elevation, Noda named Seiji Maehara, known for his hawkish views on China and close ties to Washington, to a key party post. It was Maehara who triggered the row last year when as transport minister he rashly authorised the coast guard’s arrest of the trawler crew; previously such intrusions had been handled quietly. Soon thereafter, as foreign minister, he poured oil on the fire by stating in the Diet that the Chinese reaction to the arrest verged on hysteria. In many cities around China large anti-Japanese rallies erupted while the Japanese were incensed that their government had to capitulate.

Sino-Japanese relations have not recovered from the trawler brawl and Tokyo still seethes from Beijing’s heavy-handed use of economic sanctions last year to get its way by withholding rare earth mineral exports. Beijing tested Noda early on, calling on Japan to respect China’s core interests by recognising China’s complete sovereignty over the Diaoyutai. It did not go unnoticed in Japan that during the rescue and relief operations in Tohoku, a Chinese submarine was mapping the ocean floor close to Okinawa. Perhaps this helps explain why Japan’s gratitude for the Chinese rescue assistance was somewhat muted.

Beijing has conveyed a request for a state visit this autumn by Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the likely successor to Premier Wen Jiabao. This signals its desire to improve ties in preparation for the 40th anniversary of normalising relations between Japan and China next year.

Leaders in China and Japan understand that the bilateral relationship is too important and mutually beneficial to hold hostage to history or the odd wrangle; however, China has ominously escalated tensions over territorial disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Suddenly Beijing is invoking core interests to justify unilateral assertions of sovereignty that limit room for negotiations and compromise. Noda states that Japan needs to prepare for managing further incidents over the islands in ways that avoid escalation. Hopefully he will manage the situation more adroitly than his predecessor.

In light of these and other strategic concerns, Noda wasted no time in letting the US know that he wants to repair frayed relations, but the dilemma of the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station remains an obstacle as long as Washington remains preoccupied with the unviable 2006 accord. 

On the sidelines of the recent United Nations General Assembly in September, President Obama met his fourth Japanese premier since taking office in 2009. Noda confided to Obama that one of his main missions is creating a stable government; this may not be an inspiring vision, but by recent Japanese standards just hanging in there is fairly ambitious. Obama raised the thorny issue of the 2006 agreement on relocating the Futenma Air Station in Okinawa to Henoko in the north of the island, saying he expects results. Noda replied he would do his best to gain the understanding of the Okinawan people.

Anyone paying attention to Okinawan sentiments understands that Futenma and Henoko have become highly politicised symbols of longstanding grievances towards Tokyo and Washington. Governor Hirokazu Nakaima favours relocation as long as it is anywhere outside his prefecture and his permission is crucial for the land reclamation needed to build a base at Henoko.

The 2006 roadmap for reducing the US military footprint in Okinawa is a dead-end and everyone in the know recognises that, so it is surprising that President Obama put it on the table. This past spring, three influential senators—John McCain, Jim Webb and Carl Levin—spiked the relocation plan, terming it politically unrealistic and too expensive. The senators pragmatically suggested what many Japanese and American policymakers have said all along: integrate the Futenma operations into the Kadena Air Base. The problem is that the US Marines and the Air Force, along with the Japanese living near Kadena, oppose this least-bad option. Meanwhile, a new Marine facility in Henoko will not be built, leaving the Marines at Futenma in the middle of a densely populated town, an undesirably risky situation.  

Aside from the Kadena integration plan, the senators propose reducing the US military presence in Okinawa by redeploying some forces to the under utilised Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, and Hawaii—an option that would save both governments lots of money and ill will without compromising security. The 2006 roadmap is like an out-of-date car navigator that insists that the roadblock you see in front of you is not there and the collapsed bridge behind it is what you must cross to reach your destination. The senators offer a better route to reach this destination.