In Japan, Obama Mulls Afghan War Options

Nov. 13: President Obama walks down the steps upon his arrival on Air Force One at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan. (AP)

Nov. 13: President Obama walks down the steps upon his arrival on Air Force One at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Japan. (AP)

TOKYO -- President Barack Obama arrived in Tokyo on Friday, aiming to shore up relations with a new Japanese government that vows to be more assertive with its U.S. ally, even as he grapples with sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

While public remarks from Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama are expected to stress their countries' enduring alliance, Obama's visit comes at a time of uncertainty in relations. Hatoyama has promised to end Japan's Indian Ocean refueling mission that supports U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and to review an agreement on relocating American troops in Japan that Washington thought was settled three years ago.

Obama arrived at Tokyo's Haneda Airport Friday beginning a four-nation Asia trip, his first to the region as president.

Weighing on Obama is a pending decision on Afghan war strategy. Stopping off at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on his way to Asia, Obama told a military audience he will commit more forces to Afghanistan only if it is vital to U.S. interests and receives public support.

"I will not risk your lives unless it is necessary to America's vital interests," Obama told the troops.

"And if it is necessary," he said, "the United States of America will have your back. We'll give you the strategy and the clear mission you deserve. We'll give you the equipment and support you need to get the job done. And that includes public support back home."

Afghanistan is a complicating factor in the trip to a rapidly changing Asia reordering itself around China's surging economic and diplomatic clout. Obama's chief goal, the White House has said, is to demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region.

Obama also will travel to Singapore for meetings with Southeast Asian leaders, and then to China and South Korea. Many governments are keen to see a revitalized U.S. engagement in part to counterbalance China, and even a newly powerful Beijing says it welcomes a continuing U.S. role in the region.

Japan, long billed by Washington as the cornerstone of U.S. Asia policy, is caught up in these shifts. Hatoyama came to power calling for a more equal partnership with Washington and a more positive embrace of China, which will soon supplant Japan as the world's No. 2 economy.

In a pre-trip interview with Japan's NHK network, Obama sought to minimize any friction and likened the election of Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan after nearly 50 years of rule by another party to a "political earthquake."

"I think that it is perfectly appropriate for the new government to want to re-examine how to move forward in a new environment," Obama said. "I don't think anybody expects that the U.S.-Japan relationship would be the same now as it was 50 years ago or 30 years ago or 20 years ago."

As part of an effort to shift focus away from difficult security issues, Obama and Hatoyama are expected to discuss and issue a statement on climate change, nuclear disarmament and other global issues. Attempts to coax nuclear-armed North Korea -- which occasionally threatens Japan with fiery rhetoric -- to return to disarmament negotiations are likely to feature prominently, as is Iran's nuclear program.

The stickiest issue in relations -- the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island of Okinawa -- is likely to be glossed over. Hatoyama has suggested moving Futenma off Okinawa altogether, while the U.S. wants to move the base to a more remote location on the island, as part of a 2006 agreement on relocating 47,000 American troops in Japan.

Trying to relieve some of the strain on relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada agreed earlier this week to form a new committee to resolve the base issue. Tokyo also announced a new $5 billion aid package for Afghanistan, even as it reaffirmed a pledge to end the Indian Ocean refueling mission in January.

Obama's visit would likely increase pressure on Japan to come up with a more rounded contribution to the Afghanistan war, Japanese media said.

"Counterterrorism in Afghanistan is the most important foreign policy for the Obama administration. The U.S. expects Japan will present an alternative, which will replace Japan's naval refueling mission," said the liberal Asahi Shimbun, which ran a special page Friday that included a profile on Obama and his inauguration speech.