G-8 spotlight falls on Noda but holding stage a challenge

Revolving-door leadership hurts Japan's credibility at elite forum

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda found himself in the spotlight when he was given a surprise treat during his first stint at the Group of Eight summit — a birthday cake from the current G-8 host, U.S. President Barack Obama, with the rest of the G-8 leaders celebrating with him.

On discussions at the annual summit, Noda, being the head of the only Asian nation in the grouping, took the opportunity to put North Korea and Myanmar on the agenda, while reiterating Japan’s contribution to efforts to ease Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

But despite Noda’s pitch about Japan’s role in the G-8 framework, it was not enough to steal the thunder from newly installed French President Francois Hollande, or reposition Japan into significance in the same manner it did at last year’s meeting when the nuclear crisis caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami put it at the forefront of ensuring nuclear safety.

The reason is simple — Noda, who assumed office in September last year, is just the latest Japanese leader to debut at the G-8 in what has become the nation’s revolving door leadership over the past half decade.

A senior Foreign Ministry official voiced frustration with the situation, questioning how Japan can achieve any success at the summit level if the top leaders change almost every year.

Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, said it is a “real challenge that each year there is a different prime minister coming from Japan, and that is something European and American policy leaders are aware of and lament.”

He added, “Noda is not going to be any different so there’s a real problem of credibility.”

Nonetheless, Noda, who turned 55 on Sunday, made it clear at the summit that when it comes to North Korea, he was the man to talk to, with a source close to the prime minister’s office saying, “Japan is the one that knows the most among the G-8 nations” about North Korean issues.

Pyongyang stunned the world recently with a rocket launch held in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and Noda described the North’s move as a “malicious act” that the international community must not tolerate, the Foreign Ministry said.

The prime minister also talked about Myanmar during the working dinner Friday, the first day of the two-day summit, the ministry said. Japan has also sought to raise its profile through actively engaging in the democratization of Myanmar.

His G-8 debut, however, lacked fanfare except for the customary spotlight on Japan in issues closer to home, as the leaders were more fixated on the eurozone crisis, focusing attention on Hollande, who like Noda is making his first G-8 appearance, but together with Germany is helping Europe pull out of the debt crisis.

Noda explained to fellow G-8 leaders at Camp David about Japan’s steps so far in helping ease the eurozone crisis, such as its $60 billion contribution to boost resources of the International Monetary Fund.

Yutaka Takei, senior economist of Mizuho Securities Research & Consulting Co., said the European debt crisis can delay economic recovery in Europe, which can then affect exports to the region from Japan and other Asian countries.

“What the market is extremely fearful of is Greece withdrawing from the eurozone, and the hunt will begin for the next economy to be targeted,” Takei said, citing market fears over two key economies — Italy and Spain.

Specifically, for Japan, the euro’s weakness translates to a higher yen, which is not good for export-driven Japan, Takei said, noting the repercussions on Japan’s exports of parts to China and other areas in Asia, which then sell the final products to Europe.

In view of a potential risk to the Japanese economy at a time it is rebuilding from the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters, Noda was quoted by a Japanese official as saying, “We cannot be a mere spectator.”

Coming off a low-key but decent performance on the G-8 stage, Noda returns home to his political battleground — gearing up to proceed with a consumption tax hike plan that has pitted his ruling party against key opposition parties as well as members of his own party who are led by influential lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa, a former party leader.

Sophia University’s Nakano warned that the odds were against Noda and said, “For him to really make it to October and still be there in office is conditional on overcoming” the hurdles of securing the cooperation of the opposition bloc as well as the Ozawa faction.

Nakano said that Noda’s dogged persistence in implementing his signature policy goal of a tax hike and even making it an international pledge was a “bold but perhaps ill-advised” move, adding that the prime minister has thus “put himself in a corner.” Just before leaving the United States for Japan on Saturday, Noda was asked by reporters what wish he made when he blew out the candles on his surprise birthday cake at the G-8 working dinner Friday night.

“I prayed for world peace and prosperity,” he said, but added that it would have been a different wish if he had made it while in Japan.