U.S. wants Japan to step up, Aso or no

Washington overture further presses Tokyo

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

The United States is going to great lengths to tout Japan as its key partner in addressing the financial crisis and other global issues, not only sending Hillary Rodham Clinton to Tokyo on her overseas debut as secretary of state but also inviting Prime Minister Taro Aso as President Barack Obama’s first foreign guest at the White House.

But whether Aso’s fragile administration, which was dealt another blow Tuesday with the sudden resignation of Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, can meet Washington’s expectations is another matter, as his support ratings continue to plummet and the nation falls into economic crisis.

“Of course there are matters that we are concerned about on a bilateral basis,” Clinton told a news conference after meeting Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone. “But equally, we are concerned about what we can do together to address the challenges and seize the opportunities of this time.”

Clinton, who broke with tradition by picking Japan as her first destination, emphasized repeatedly that Japan’s alliance with the United States is a “cornerstone” of Washington’s foreign policy to assure Tokyo it will not be traded for China.

On North Korean issues, an area that saw friction between Tokyo and Washington under the administration of President George W. Bush, Clinton articulated her support for Japan’s emphasis on the need for a comprehensive approach on the nuclear, missile and abduction issues and agreed on the importance of solving them under the six-party talks framework.

While her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had often appeared somewhat cool to many Japanese, Clinton put on a friendlier face by including in her tight schedule Tuesday a visit to a major shrine, a meeting with Empress Michiko and an hourlong dialogue with students.

Showing sensitivity to Japanese anger over Bush’s removal of North Korea from a terrorist sponsor blacklist last year before Pyongyang fully addressed the abduction issue, Clinton also met in person with relatives of missing abductees to express her sympathy.

Against the backdrop of the Obama administration’s approach to Japan are expectations that its key ally in Asia will play a greater role globally, including sharing a greater burden in reconstruction and antiterrorism in Afghanistan.

“Japan is of great strategic value to the United States,” a senior Foreign Ministry official involved in Japan-U.S. affairs said of Obama’s invitation for talks with Aso on Feb. 24. “It doesn’t matter so much who the prime minister is. It matters that he is the Japanese prime minister.”

The official, who asked not to be named, explained by saying, “When the United States considers how to engage China over the next 20 or 50 years, it will not be easy for two major powers to deal with each other, so Washington will need a partner in the region. Japan is that crucial partner it wants to secure.”

Clinton also stressed her hopes of addressing the world’s economic crisis with Japan, noting both sides are aware of their “great responsibility” as the first and second largest economies in the world.

But Nakagawa’s sudden resignation Tuesday, which came as Clinton was meeting Nakasone, raised concerns that it could deal a serious blow to the already faltering Japanese economy and undermine the nation’s ability to exercise leadership in coordinating a global strategy.

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Hitoshi Tanaka, who has retired from the ministry, pointed out last week that for Japan to fulfill its global role, it must first achieve stability in domestic politics to enable the government to implement more long-term strategies.

“Be it the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party or the (opposition) Democratic Party of Japan taking office, Japan is now at an important crossroads,” Tanaka said.

He noted that Japan had seven prime ministers during Bill Clinton’s eight years as president, and five others during Bush’s time in office

“With that kind of political instability in Japan, will other countries have confidence and trust in us? Anyone with common sense can see this (problem),” Tanaka said.

In a rare move that caused a stir in Tokyo’s political circles, Clinton met with opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa of the DPJ after completing her other official talks, amid prospects that the DPJ-led opposition camp may oust Aso’s coalition from power in a general election this year.