Mori, Bush expected to confirm macroeconomic cooperation

by Junko Takahashi

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and U.S. President George W. Bush are expected to issue a joint statement mainly on bilateral cooperation regarding macroeconomic policies when they meet in Washington on Monday, in an attempt to quell concerns over recent steep falls in stock markets in both countries.

Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said discussions on the countries’ economies will be “one of the main issues” at the meeting.

Taro Aso, minister of economic and fiscal policy, will accompany Mori to explain measures considered by the government and the ruling bloc to bolster the stock market and keep Japan’s economy afloat.

During the talks, Mori and Bush will also try to reaffirm bilateral ties in the wake of the Feb. 9 accidental sinking of the Ehime Maru by the submarine USS Greeneville off Hawaii.

Little else, however, is expected from the meeting, as Mori’s days in office appear numbered. He has agreed to move up the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race, which was originally scheduled for September when his term as LDP chief expires.

Foreign Ministry officials stress the importance of the first Japan-U.S. summit since Bush’s inauguration in January, saying the two countries need to quickly coordinate policies on bilateral security, economic relations and international issues, especially toward North Korea.

“We cannot have a vacuum in diplomacy,” Kono told a news conference earlier this week. “We need to know the new U.S. administration’s Asia-Pacific policies at an early date,” he said, brushing aside criticism that a Mori-Bush meet may negatively impact upon Tokyo-Washington ties in view of Mori’s political woes.

But Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, professor of international relations at Toyo University, said it is unlikely the two countries will discuss specific policy issues in depth until after the Upper House election in July. Mori’s successor may also prove short-lived if the LDP suffers another setback in the July election, which is considered likely.

“I don’t think Bush would make any policy commitment with the lame-duck Mori administration,” Nishikawa said. “At least until after the Upper House election, the United States will take a wait-and-see stance on Japan.”

One of the major topics will be the sinking of the Japanese fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru, owned by a fisheries training high school in Ehime Prefecture, by the submarine. Nine people were presumed killed in the incident and the two leaders are expected to discuss salvaging the ship and compensating the victim’s families.

The Bush administration has taken public steps to prevent the accident from spoiling Japanese sentiment toward the U.S., sending a special envoy to Japan to offer repeated apologies. The Greeneville’s captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, who was relieved of his command after the accident, also apologized last week to Japanese relatives attending the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry into the accident in Honolulu.

In this sense, the upcoming Mori-Bush meeting may be a good opportunity for the two countries to overcome recent difficulties and confirm the need to beef up bilateral ties, said Fumiaki Kubo, professor of international relations at Keio University.

Kubo said the two governments should remember that the accident and the series of unsavory incidents involving U.S. military personnel in Okinawa could potentially trigger emotional uproar in Japan.

“The recent accident and incidents (in Okinawa) showed that Japan-U.S. relations cannot be taken for granted,” he said. “There needs to be a very careful steering to maintain good relations.”

Nishikawa said Bush’s apparent emphasis on ties with Japan — a turnaround from former President Bill Clinton’s focus on China in his Asian policy — means the U.S. is expecting Japan to play a bigger security role.

But public sentiment toward U.S. forces in Okinawa Prefecture, which accounts for 75 percent of the land occupied by the U.S. military in Japan, has recently deteriorated due to a series of incidents involving U.S. service members there, including arson attacks on local shops allegedly committed by a marine.

Last month, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said citizens of the prefecture “can no longer bear” the burden of hosting such a large segment of U.S. forces. He called for cuts in the number of U.S. troops there and revision to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

The SOFA stipulates that the U.S. will retain custody of its military personnel suspected of crimes until they are indicted by Japanese authorities.

Shortly after the 1995 rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen, Japan and the U.S. agreed that suspects in murder and rape cases could be transferred to Japanese authorities before indictment. In response to the latest demand from Okinawa, the two governments agreed last week to start discussions on expanding Japanese jurisdiction over other crimes, including arson and kidnapping for ransom.

On reducing the U.S. forces in Okinawa, Kubo said Japan should not simply call for a cut in troops but should offer alternate means to strengthen the alliance in substance, such as boosting joint military training and sharing military information.

“Otherwise, Japan’s demand would not be persuasive,” he said.

Urgent discussion on the two countries’ economies has surfaced as the main topic at the Mori-Bush talks, in light of the falling stock prices in both nations this week and the consequent worldwide shock waves that followed.

Mori will explain Japan’s current economic situation and the steps his government is taking to bolster the economy, while Bush will probably urge Japan to strive harder for economic recovery and proceed with structural reform and deregulation, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

But Bush is unlikely to press Japan on problems in specific sectors or to urge specific policy measures to boost the economy “because the new administration knows such action would only invite sour sentiment from Japan,” the official said.

Kono and Secretary of State Colin Powell agreed in their meeting in January that bilateral economic problems should be solved through dialogue, rather than through pressure from Washington.

To enhance such dialogue, Japan is trying to set up bilateral economic meetings utilizing private-sector experts.

The ministry official said that government, business and academic leaders of the two countries should have continuous and frank discussions on topics ranging from structural reform to the new economy and a possible free-trade agreement.

“We don’t want to preset certain topics before we even start talking,” the official said. “The important thing is to take up private-sector opinions in discussing bilateral (economic ties) . . . and have a framework where we can meet regularly and freely discuss various matters.”

On international relations, Japan hopes to obtain a clear picture of the Bush administration’s policy toward North Korea and reaffirm the importance of close policy coordination by the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

Bush has shifted from Clinton’s reconciliatory attitude toward North Korea and displayed a tougher stance against Pyongyang in his meeting earlier this month with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

Bush said he is skeptical about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s commitment toward the peace process and has no immediate plans to resume missile talks with Pyongyang.

“We want to know the real intention of the new administration . . . whether it is showing such a tough stance at first to soothe the hardline Republicans and take a softer stance later, or that it is altering its basic policy toward Pyongyang,” another senior ministry official said.

“We want to make sure that we continue coordinating our policy,” the official said.