Leaders’ cozy ties pose challenges

Political hurdles remain on SDF's role in Iraq, missile defense

Kyodo

The close relationship between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. President George W. Bush was on full display at their summit at Bush’s ranch. Their cozy ties, however, could bring Japan into uncharted postwar waters concerning security issues.

Bush gave Koizumi two big gifts during their talks — endorsing the prime minister’s economic reform initiative and strongly supporting his efforts to tackle the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.

“I assured the prime minister that the United States will stand squarely with Japan until all Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea are fully accounted for,” Bush said. “I strongly condemn the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans.”

It was the first time for Bush to officially accuse North Korea of kidnapping Japanese citizens.

Despite his very tight schedule, Bush invited Koizumi to the ranch largely in recognition of Japan’s strong support of U.S. policy in Iraq. Koizumi became one of only a handful of foreign leaders to stay there overnight.

On Thursday, Bush took Koizumi on a long car tour of the ranch before the two held poolside talks only with interpreters for about two hours. They had about two more hours of discussions Friday, and Koizumi attended a regular morning U.S. intelligence briefing for Bush given by members of the National Security Council.

Bush reportedly proposed that Koizumi take part in the briefing, held shortly before the summit talks at the ranch, emphasizing that it would demonstrate the strong U.S.-Japan alliance. It was the first time for a Japanese prime minister to attend such a meeting, in which the president is briefed every morning on national security issues.

“I’ve never spent so many hours discussing various issues with a head of state or head of government,” Koizumi said. “We discussed all sorts of issues very candidly and in depth.”

In particular, winning endorsement from Bush for his economic reform initiative would be encouraging for Koizumi, who is seeking to be re-elected president of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September.

“I support the prime minister’s efforts and I support the prime minister’s reforms,” Bush said.

Koizumi’s power base in the LDP is very weak. Support from the U.S., which has significant influence over Japan’s security and economy, would make it difficult for the LDP’s old guard to step up moves to challenge Koizumi in the September presidential race.

During the talks, Koizumi pledged to end deflation and prevent Japan from sinking into a financial crisis following the recent state-backed bailout of Resona Holdings Inc.

But although the Bush administration is now silent on Japan’s economic policy management, it may increase pressure on Japan to take drastic measures to boost growth if the Japanese economy remains sluggish.

The Bush administration is now focusing on reviving the U.S. economy in time for the 2004 presidential election. It is concerned that the Japanese economy remains a drag on global economic growth.

Furthermore, security-related issues discussed by the two leaders — including North Korea, missile defense and the possible dispatch of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to Iraq — indicate that Koizumi may be forced to tackle some contentious issues concerning the role of Japan’s military in global affairs, which could run counter to its war-renouncing Constitution.

While reaffirming the policy of resolving North Korea’s nuclear standoff peacefully, Koizumi and Bush warned that Pyongyang will face “tougher measures” from the international community if it escalates the situation. This was an apparent reference to the possible imposition of economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Koizumi and Bush also agreed to deepen cooperation on a missile defense system.

Japan and the U.S. are currently conducting joint research on a next-generation system to protect Japanese and U.S. forces deployed in Japan from ballistic missile attacks.

But this research is expected to take at least five years before bearing any fruit, and the government is considering the purchase of a U.S.-developed naval-based missile defense system that could be mounted on Aegis destroyers of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces.

Another option being considered is a ground-based PAC-3 system, an advanced version of the current Patriot missile system operated by the Self-Defense Forces.

Washington is hoping to integrate a Japanese missile-defense system into its planned worldwide missile defense network — a move that would run counter to Japan’s constitutional ban on its right to collective self-defense and to help allies under foreign attack.

Bush, meanwhile, expressed hope that Japan will dispatch its SDF to help rebuild Iraq, saying, “Japanese forces will provide logistic support for humanitarian and reconstruction activities.”

But sending SDF troops to areas of conflict overseas is a sensitive issue in Japan due to the pacifist Constitution.

On Thursday, aboard a government plane from Tokyo to Texas, Koizumi said the government will consider introducing new legislation to authorize the dispatch of the SDF to postwar Iraq.

But he has yet to decide on whether to submit it to the Diet during the current session, because a long extension of between 40 and 50 days is regarded as necessary to deliberate the contentious issue. The current 150-day session is scheduled to end June 18.

The ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, plans to discuss how to deal with the envisioned new legislation once Koizumi returns to Japan, according to a high-ranking LDP source involved in negotiations on the bill.

Many LDP heavyweights are reluctant to extend the Diet session. Those in the anti-Koizumi faction are calling instead for a Cabinet reshuffle in exchange for assurances that Koizumi will be re-elected as party president. This would allow the government to focus on the economy and North Korea.