• Kyodo

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Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. President Barack Obama broadly agreed to cooperate further on stabilizing Afghanistan in their first meeting Tuesday in Washington, but the visit gave experts the impression the United States isn’t investing much in what is widely regarded to be a lame-duck Cabinet

Although Obama invited Aso to be the first foreign leader to visit him at the White House, few of the usual hospitalities, including the joint press conference and lunch, were arranged for the unpopular prime minister.

Some analysts said the hidden message from Washington was that, while it recognizes the importance of maintaining the strong alliance with Japan to rebuild the global economy and deal with Afghanistan and North Korea, it is also fully aware that mounting pressures may force Aso out of power soon.

The meeting “sent an implicit signal that Washington supports the Liberal Democratic Party, if not Prime Minister Taro Aso himself,” said Weston Konishi, a Japan-U.S. relations expert and adjunct fellow at the Mansfield Foundation.

“Washington wants to lend credibility to the leader of the LDP, a party which has historically delivered on policies that support U.S. strategic interests,” Konishi said.

Aso told Obama that Japan will participate in a U.S. review of its comprehensive strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and appoint a special envoy to coordinate assistance there, showing Tokyo’s support for the war on terrorism in the region.

Aso also conveyed that Japan will host a donor conference in April to generate support for Pakistan, which Tokyo considers a “frontline state” in the war, a Japanese official said.

“With regard to Afghanistan, it is important that we also approach its neighboring countries Pakistan and Iran,” Aso said after the summit.

The two also agreed to urge North Korea not to take provocative actions to raise diplomatic tensions. Pyongyang is reportedly preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile that will purportedly be used to put a satellite into orbit.

Obama said it is important for Japan and the U.S. to push for complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

He also expressed appreciation for Japan’s extensive contributions in stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan, and “strongly welcomed” Japan’s intention to play a greater role in helping Afghanistan and Pakistan to improve security and economic development, the White House said in a statement.

Observers have said that Aso probably wanted to take advantage of the meeting with the new American leader to boost his sagging popularity in Japan.

But analysts in Japan and the United States generally believe that even the Obama meeting, which received little domestic or worldwide coverage, will not be able to help the ailing Aso administration, whose popularity poll numbers hit record lows after its finance minister abruptly resigned last week following an embarrassing Group of Seven press conference in Rome.

Some in the Obama administration are worried that “Japan may not live up to minimum expectations of what it can do to tackle the global economic crisis” as the world’s second-largest economy, Konishi said.

Masahiko Adachi, senior analyst for North America at Sumitomo Shoji Research Institute, noted that while the U.S. has clarified its hopes for a firm relationship with Japan by making Tokyo the first stop for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and inviting Aso to the White House, “Japan has so far failed to live up to the expectations.”

This was underlined last week when then Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, one of Aso’s close allies, suddenly resigned the same day that Clinton visited, dealing a severe blow to Aso’s already fragile administration.

With speculation growing over whether Aso will cave in to pressure either to resign or to call an early general election the LDP would be in danger of losing, any further instability will likely take a toll on foreign policy.

Clinton asked Japan to participate in a review of policy on Afghanistan last week when she visited Tokyo, saying Washington wants “to have the benefit of the experience of the Japanese involvement as we go forward to determine the approach that we will be taking.”

Counterterrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan are priorities for Obama, who recently approved the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops there.

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