STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Japan's prime minister is in Washington today to meet with President Obama. The two countries have just agreed to move thousands of U.S. Marines off a controversial base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Now, they hope to focus on other issues, as NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: This will be the first bilateral summit between U.S. and Japanese leaders in three years. Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says political turmoil in Japan has led to a constant turnover in leadership. There have been six prime ministers in as many years. Smith says although President Obama has met with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda before, he could be forgiven to double-checking. That's who he'll be seeing again today.
SHEILA SMITH: This will be his fourth Japanese prime minister since he came into office in 2009. Japan's own domestic inability to have sustained political leadership makes it very difficult for the alliance. And it's very hard to say, you know, can we have a prime minister for more than one year, please? But it does make bilateral cooperation very, very difficult.
NORTHAM: The alliance with Japan is a critical component to the Obama administration's strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region. That includes distributing U.S. forces more broadly throughout the area. A major stumbling block to those plans was the U.S. military presence in Japan. There's a profound Japanese opposition to American Marines stationed on the island of Okinawa. That friction was eased last week when the two sides agreed to move some 9,000 Marines - about half those stationed in Okinawa - to Guam, Hawaii and other Asian-Pacific sites. Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, says the agreement has strong support across the U.S. and Japanese governments.
KURT CAMPBELL: We think it breaks a very long stalemate on Okinawa that has plagued our politics, that has clogged both of our systems, that has made it difficult to deal with the critical and crucial issues that confront the United States and Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
NORTHAM: Campbell says the agreement comes at an auspicious time.
CAMPBELL: We've had - faced new challenges on the Korean Peninsula, new provocations from North Korea. We have been busy with a number of steps in the Asia Pacific region associated with our overall defense posture.
NORTHAM: And there's China's military buildup and its territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Campbell says the U.S. is in close consultation with a number of other countries in the region about ways it can increase U.S. deployments and training. Noriyuki Shikata, a spokesman for Prime Minister Noda, says distributing U.S. forces more broadly through the Asia-Pacific region will help strengthen deterrence.
NORIYUKI SHIKATA: From a Japanese government point of view, U.S. intention to rebalance defense priorities toward the Asia-Pacific region is welcome. And also, it's not only limited to defense issues. You know, we welcome U.S. efforts, you know, to advance its diplomatic and economic engagement in the region.
NORTHAM: President Obama and Prime Minister Noda are due to talk, among other things, about trade pacts during their meeting today. At a formal dinner this evening, the Obama administration will announce a gift of 3,000 dogwood trees, especially grown for Japan. It comes 100 years after Japan sent 3,000 cherry blossom trees to Washington. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.