With only a few days to go until the Group of Eight summit gets under way in Hokkaido, Japanese diplomats were still struggling to find ways to achieve progress — no matter how small — over last year’s G8 gathering.

The central issue this time around will be climate change, but sharp disagreements remain over whether any goals should be set for each country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Foreign Ministry officials have indicated there is scant reason to think numerical targets will be set.

According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, the tentative goal for Tokyo now is to produce something at least a little more substantive than the vague agreement that came out of the 2007 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, to “consider seriously” the target of halving global emissions of green house gases by 2050.

“We’d like to make some progress from last year’s summit, even if it may be only a few steps forward,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official involved in the presummit negotiations.

Japan’s difficulties are indicative of the G8’s limited influence and the ever-stronger voices of emerging economic powers.

The annual meeting of leading industrialized nations started in 1975 with six countries — Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and West Germany. Canada joined in 1976 and Russia in 1997.

The reality is that these eight countries are not powerful enough to cope with a number of new global challenges.

After all, neither China nor India are members, even though China is now believed to be the world’s worst polluter — having replaced the U.S. for that dubious honor in 2007 — and India is the fifth-worst.

Total greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries are predicted to exceed that of OECD countries by around 2015, according to the Japanese government, but the developing countries argue it is the developed states that should make the first bold cuts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has insisted any agreement that doesn’t involve China and India would be meaningless and refuses to set any ambitious reduction goals for itself.

“Look, we can’t have an effective agreement unless China and India are a part of it. It’s as simple as that,” President George W. Bush said in a Wednesday speech at the White House.

“I’m going to remind our partners that’s the case” during the Hokkaido summit, he said.

For this year’s summit, the G8 has invited China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, Australia and South Korea to its “outreach” session on climate change.

Apart from the G8’s inability to come up with anything on global warming, some world leaders have questioned the value of the summit’s current framework.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on June 3, French President Nicolas Sarkozy vehemently argued that the G8 forum should be expanded to include such countries as China and India, according to Japanese diplomats.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also appears to be positive about expanding the group, although he has not explicitly discussed it, they said.

Fukuda strongly disagrees, saying the G8 should remain a forum for a small number of states bearing a large responsibility for the international community.

Tokyo fears expanding the meeting would diminish Japan’s clout on the world stage.

“Japan, Germany and Italy are reluctant about expansion. They do not want to weaken the power of the G8 to send out political messages,” said a senior Foreign Ministry in charge of European affairs.

“President Sarkozy is of the opinion that the G8 was originally started as a forum for economic discussions, and talking about economic issues without the participation of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is meaningless. He believes noneconomic issues should be discussed at the U.N. Security Council,” the official said.

But Japan, Germany and Italy are not permanent members of the Security Council and attach greater political value to the G8 forum, the official said.

Another senior Foreign Ministry official argued that expanding the G8 membership would only increase political taboos that member states can’t touch on during the closed-door summit.

For example, adding China would make it impossible to discuss human rights issues and world currency issues related to the yuan, the official said.

Despite speculation that the G8 leaders may discuss the expansion issue in Hokkaido, Japanese officials insist it will not be a formal topic.

“I guarantee that will never be on the formal agenda,” Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Tuesday. “None of (the foreign ministers) of the G8 has discussed the issue yet. At least Japan has not said it wants to expand the G8.”

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