Fukuda carries political baggage to Washington


With Tuesday’s passage of a new special antiterrorism bill by the Lower House, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda can breathe a sigh of relief before he meets Friday with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington in their first bilateral summit.

But with the two countries still facing a number of thorny diplomatic issues besides the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean, a task incorporated in the antiterrorism bill, the upcoming summit may require more than just the reconfirmation of solid ties.

Among the problematic issues are Washington’s possible removal of North Korea from its list of terrorism-sponsoring states and Tokyo’s plan to reduce the so-called sympathy budget that helps fund U.S. bases in Japan.

Delisting North Korea would be taken here as a sign that the U.S. is letting Pyongyang get away with the abductions of Japanese, while the U.S. is likely to turn a deaf ear to Tokyo’s cries of fiscal constraints for cutting the sympathy budget.

Against this backdrop, officials say the Lower House passage of the antiterrorism bill plays a significant part in casting Japan’s international relations in a positive light.

“It is important to show the international community, not to mention the U.S., that the government is making efforts to resume the (MSDF’s) refueling operation and to ease their concerns over the suspension,” Foreign Vice Minister Shotaro Yachi told a news conference Monday.

The bill’s fate, however, still remains up in the air because the Upper House, now controlled by the opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, has threatened to prolong deliberations on the bill and let it die when the Diet session ends Dec. 15.

Regardless of the fate of the bill, Foreign Ministry officials emphasize the importance of sending the message that the government is doing all it can.

“The U.S. is not (criticizing Japan). The U.S. understands the political situation that the (Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito) ruling coalition is confronted with and it is important to show them that we are working hard to pass the bill,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

Another ministry official said the U.S. is well aware that pushing Japan too hard will prompt the rise of anti-American sentiment in Japan.

Experts say the ministry’s stance clearly shows that both countries are playing up the symbolic meaning of the MSDF’s contribution to the global war on terrorism.

“No one in the international community cares about the suspension of the MSDF’s operation,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, an adjunct fellow of the U.S.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“What the U.S. fears most is that participating countries (engaged in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom-Maritime Interdiction Operation) will decrease as the war on terrorism is prolonged, which may take 10 to 20 years,” Watanabe said, adding that the U.S. is worried that Japan’s withdrawal may prompt other countries to leave as well.

Government officials underline the significance of Fukuda choosing the U.S. for his first official overseas trip since taking office in September, despite his strong ties with China, as an indication that the Japan-U.S. relationship is the basis of Japan’s diplomacy.

They say the solid partnership between the two powers remains intact, but Fukuda will inevitably find himself in a dilemma over some issues.

One is the U.S. intention to remove North Korea from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which Japan has been resisting by citing lack of progress on the abduction issue.

The U.S. hopes to finish the disablement of North Korea’s key nuclear facilities in Yongbyon under a six-party denuclearization agreement by year’s end and plans to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism list in return.

Tokyo has been asking Washington not to drop Pyongyang from the list, and Foreign Ministry officials say Fukuda will raise the issue once again when he meets with Bush.

But Michael Heazle, a political science professor at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, said Washington is unlikely to accommodate Tokyo.

“The U.S. is very keen to keep the momentum going on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament because of both the real dangers posed by a nuclearized Korean Peninsula and also the fact that the success the U.S. has had so far via the six-party talks is the only real foreign policy achievement the Bush administration can point to after nearly two terms in office,” Heazle said.

Paul Scott, a professor of political science at Kansai Gaidai University who specializes in Japan-U.S. relations, said if Pyongyang is taken off the list, Japan will feel insulted but will have no option but to continue addressing the abduction issue given the strong voices the abductees’ relatives have in Japan.

“Bush is looking at North Korea from a wide-ranging perspective,” while politicians in Japan cannot escape the strong pressure from the public not to be weak on Pyongyang, Scott said.

Heazle agrees.

“Fukuda will find it very difficult to back down on North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals due to public opinion at home, and at the same time the U.S. will be very reluctant to jeopardize North Korean cooperation over a bilateral dispute between Tokyo and Pyongyang,” Heazle said.

With that in mind, Heazle said, “North Korea seems to hold the major cards needed to bring about a resolution that both the U.S. and Japan would be happy with and it is very likely Pyongyang will exploit this to the full.”

Another issue that has been a headache for Japan-U.S. relations is the sympathy budget — the costs Japan is shouldering to host U.S. military bases.

Because the special bilateral agreement on Japan’s payments for hosting U.S. bases expires in March, Tokyo is considering reducing the amount for financial reasons, but the U.S. is asking for an increase.

Japan secured ¥217.3 billion for the sympathy budget in fiscal 2007, down 6.6 percent from the previous year, but Japan’s contribution remains substantial.