Mori faces tough balancing act on nine-day G8 tour

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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori today embarks on a nine-day trip to meet the other leaders of the Group of Eight countries in an important test of his diplomatic acumen that is likely to affect his chairmanship at the Okinawa G8 summit in July.

The hastily arranged tour is regarded as an opportunity for Mori, who has little experience in foreign policy, to introduce himself to the other G8 leaders and solicit their cooperation before the July 21-23 summit.

Mori, who took office earlier this month after his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, suffered a stroke and collapsed into a coma, expressed his determination to “carry forward the aspirations of former Prime Minister Obuchi” and “work on establishing close relations with other (G8) leaders before the summit takes place,” in his policy speech.

During this trip, the summit chairman is likely to present a specific agenda for the upcoming talks in Okinawa and elaborate on Japan’s strategies for dealing with issues the international community faces at present, such as nuclear nonproliferation, United Nations reforms and international trade liberalization.

Meanwhile, Japan’s bilateral concerns linger with some G8 members. In talks with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, Mori needs to have substantial discussions to advance bilateral peace treaty negotiations, which the two countries have pledged to conclude by the end of the year.

In addition, U.S. President Bill Clinton may discuss the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa and reductions in Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.’s interconnection fees.

Mori leaves for Russia today to hold talks with Putin on Saturday in St. Petersburg, followed by a series of brief visits to Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Canada and the United States for top-level meetings.

Mori is scheduled to meet with Italian Prime Minister-designate Giuliano Amato on Tuesday in Rome and French President Jacques Chirac in Paris later the same day.

The prime minister will visit German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Wednesday in Berlin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair the same day in London.

Mori will then fly across the Atlantic to Ottawa for talks with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Thursday and meet with Clinton on Friday in Washington. Mori is scheduled to return to Japan on May 6.

During the meetings with the seven leaders, Mori is expected to present a blueprint for summit discussions and solicit their opinions on the agenda and cooperation in preparing for the summit, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“As to topics for discussion,” the official said, “Japan has placed special emphasis on new issues arising from intensifying globalization, such as helping the developing world deal with advancing information technology, infectious diseases and cross-border crimes, and the creation of social safety nets against economic crises.”

For these nations, the growing “digital divide” — an information-technology gap between developed and developing countries — is an imminent concern.

Tokyo formulated this stance after “intently listening to the voices of developing countries over the past several months,” the official said, citing Obuchi’s attendance in February at the general assembly meeting in Bangkok of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the Japan-South Pacific Forum summit that Mori hosted last week in Miyazaki.

“Along with G8 concerns over global issues, such as discussing steps to resolve international conflicts and helping rebuild heavily indebted poor economies, tackling the new challenges of globalization in the developing world is likely to become a major theme of the summit,” the official said.

Mori also needs to spell out Japan’s strategies for resolving the immediate concerns of the international community if he wants to gain the leaders’ confidence in his G8 chairmanship.

These include such concerns as advancing U.N. reforms, launching a new round of international trade liberalization talks at the World Trade Organization and strengthening the regime of global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

Japan has been calling for early enactment of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the immediate launch of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which would prohibit the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

On Monday in New York, State Foreign Secretary Ichita Yamamoto reiterated Tokyo’s stance in his address to the ongoing U.N.-sponsored international conference to review the implementation of the NPT.

Japan’s bilateral concerns with Russia are expected to be addressed when Mori and Putin meet on Saturday. Japan sees this bilateral summit as an occasion to “start a new phase of Japan-Russia relations toward the 21st century,” another ministry official said.

The official said the two leaders are unlikely to hold specific discussions on resolving the long-standing territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido — the most contentious matter deadlocking the peace treaty talks.

“The meeting is aimed at making Putin understand the significance of constructing an enhanced Japan-Russia partnership by signing a peace treaty,” the official said. “For a peace treaty, we must resolve our territorial dispute. We hope Putin will understand this logic.”

Specific negotiations are likely to resume at a later date, when Putin makes an official visit to Japan possibly after the Okinawa summit, the official said.

In Japan-U.S. relations, a series of concerns remain unresolved.

The government in December formally approved a plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ helicopter operations from Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to an airport to be built in Nago’s Henoko district.

Local governments, however, have argued that the base should be returned after 15 years of use and the central government has promised to convey that request to the U.S., making the time-limit issue a sensitive item in Tokyo-Washington security relations.

Ambassador Shunji Yanai indicated Monday in Washington that Mori will not champion Okinawa’s demand for a time limit in his talks with Clinton.

On NTT access rate cuts, the U.S. side has been calling for a more drastic reduction than Japan’s proposal — a 22.5 percent cut over four years — demanding that Tokyo achieve the target more quickly and move on to a new phase of deregulation.

The two sides are likely to hold high-level talks in Washington on Monday and Tuesday ahead of the Mori-Clinton meeting on Friday, another ministry official said.

So far, the gaps between the two sides have been so wide that there remains the possibility that the failure of the high-level talks may prompt Clinton to address U.S. concerns directly to Mori, the official said.