The news that the expected host of this year’s Group of Eight summit in Okinawa had fallen into a coma after suffering a stroke sent shock waves across the globe on Monday.
Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s sudden hospitalization comes at a time when the government is preparing to host its first G8 summit outside of Tokyo.
Japanese officials played down any immediate impact from Obuchi’s hospitalization on the government’s tight diplomatic schedule but appeared to be at a loss over the possible consequences of a prolonged absence.
Upon hearing of Obuchi’s condition, U.S. President Bill Clinton on Sunday offered his sympathies and said he and all Americans were praying for the prime minister’s swift recovery.
“He has been a good friend to me personally, a good friend of the United States, and he has been a tireless worker to restore the Japanese economy and to bring Asia back from its financial crisis,” Clinton said at an airport near San Jose, California.
Diplomatic sources in the Clinton administration said that if a Liberal Democratic Party-led government stays in power there will be no possibility of any fundamental change in Japan-U.S. ties.
Obuchi’s illness, however, may deal a serious blow to the prospect of holding an unofficial Japan-Russia summit prior to the G8 summit, a key component in efforts to conclude a formal peace treaty between the two nations.
Despite this, Obuchi’s special envoy, Muneo Suzuki, will still proceed with his visit to Moscow to meet Russia’s President-elect Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency said in a dispatch from Tokyo on Monday that the “unexpected hospitalization of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi naturally adds an element of uncertainty to a solution to the (timing of the meeting).”
Obuchi had hoped to forge a close relationship with Putin, who won a presidential election March 26, as a stepping stone toward concluding a peace treaty. British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday expressed hopes for Obuchi’s recovery, a British Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
In a personal message sent to Tokyo, Blair said the British government is concerned about Obuchi’s condition and is hoping for a speedy recovery.
Many Asian nations were also stunned by Obuchi’s illness.
Chinese officials said President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji have sent out messages of condolences to Obuchi.
“The Chinese side is very concerned about the hospitalization of Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement. “President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji have respectively sent out messages of condolences and hope that Prime Minister Obuchi recovers at an early date.”
In March, Zhu, commenting on the “good state” of Sino-Japan relations, spoke of his “very close, personal relationship” with the 62-year-old Obuchi.
But he rejected any talk of China attending the Okinawa summit, something which Obuchi had pursued relentlessly.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung on Monday wished Obuchi a quick recovery, and the South Korean media led their news coverage with the prime minister’s hospitalization.
In a message to Obuchi, Kim said: “I was greatly shocked to hear you were abruptly hospitalized. I offer you my deep consolations and wish you a quick recovery.” according to a presidential spokesman.
South Korean television and radio stations devoted a major portion of their regular news programming to Obuchi’s hospitalization, while newspapers led their morning editions with the same story.