President Obama is departing on his first presidential trip to Asia, a nine-day journey through Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He lands in Tokyo on Friday. Beyond the ceremony and posturing, what are the key issues at stake? Commentators say the diplomatic stop comes at a moment of weakness in the crucial U.S.-Japan alliance. Here's what they're watching for:

  • Paradox in Power Struggles  The U.S. is crucial to "most groupings of Asian nations," argues the editorial board of The Christian Science Monitor. "It still protects the region's sea lanes, keeps its own markets open to Asian imports, and, by its military presence, prevents any of the historic rivalry between China and Japan from erupting again." On the one hand, Japan's new government "seeks more independence from its ally and less of a US military footprint on Okinawa. It also proposes an East Asian trade grouping, similar to the European Union--but it's not clear if the US is invited." Yet at the same time, the more Japan, China, and India grow into their new roles and "battle for influence among themselves, the more the US is needed."
  • Okinawa Base Conflict  "At the core of the current contretemps," explains Michael Auslin in the New York Times, "is a 2006 agreement to move a Marine Corps Air Station out of its urban setting in Okinawa to a less populated part of the island. That is supposed to be followed by the relocation of thousands of U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and the return to Japanese control of other U.S. bases on the island." While Prime Minister Hatoyama's face off with Robert Gates over the deal (the newly elected Hatoyama wants plans to move forward) is a problem, another issue is internal Japanese disagreement over the base and over Japan's foreign policy in general:
This is where the president’s trip is crucial, for the bureaucrats running the alliance will respond to their political leadership. If Messrs. Obama and Hatoyama agree to disagree, then both countries will likely put the relationship on the back burner and reach out to other players in Asia, possibly reshaping regional politics.
  • Japanese Domestic Politics Complicate Matters  Calling the visit a "much-needed opportunity to calm and energize the U.S.-Japan relationship," Sheila Smith in the Washington Post suggests that " in Tokyo, the president should aim at restoring faith in Washington's ability to adjust to Japan's new politics. Old habits of lecturing Tokyo on its responsibilities must end." The summer Japanese election changed a great deal, and "in the short term, there is a real danger that the U.S.-Japan alliance will become a pawn in Japanese political rivalries." Any smoothing of ruffled feathers will need to take Japanese politics into account, Smith argues.
Nor should Washington underestimate the tremendous expectations among Japanese voters. For years U.S. policymakers have bemoaned Japan's lack of ability to act and change. Now, as Tokyo announces new initiatives, the perception is growing in Japan that Washington fears the potential adjustments that real change might suggest for alliance management.