Aso unlikely to make much of a splash at G8

World has gotten used to Japan's revolving door


Birds of a feather will flock to L’Aquila, Italy, for the Group of Eight summit beginning Wednesday, with premiers in attendance including embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the scandal-ridden Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.

But the lamest duck of all may be Prime Minister Taro Aso, for whom the summit will likely be his final moment in the sun.

“I look forward to the prime minister making strong statements on economic policies on the G8 stage, illustrating how some of Japan’s stimulus packages have begun showing effect,” political analyst Eiken Itagaki said.

“But it’s true that people are already talking about who should replace Aso,” he added, acknowledging the prime minister could be unseated within weeks, either as a result of the Lower House election or a mutiny in the Liberal Democratic Party.

Aso’s equally unpopular predecessors, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, both lasted only about three months after their appearances in the last two G8 summits. With Aso’s sagging approval rate and no sign of a come-from-behind strategy, Japan will likely be sending a fifth prime minister to next year’s G8 gathering.

“Japan has been incessant in sending a different prime minister every time,” Itagaki said, adding cynically that the other countries probably have come to expect a new Japanese face at the table every year.

Domestic woes from random directions have continuously harried Aso since he took office since last September, beginning with the slumping economy. But there have been a slew of other problems, from the resignation of Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa after his bizarre news conference in Rome to the more recent troubles over the handling of who should run Japan Postal Holdings Co.

The chasm in the LDP also runs deep, with many of its members seeking to take Aso down before the date for the general election is set.

The Democratic Party of Japan has gained an edge over the LDP in opinion polls, but Aso, who some see diplomacy as his forte, will attempt to score domestic points in L’Aquila.

During a foreign policy speech last week, Aso listed the dispatch of the Maritime Self-Defense Force to the waters off Somali and extending the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean as some of his accomplishments.

Ties with China and South Korea are at their best, he said, adding he intends to express his thoughts at the G8 meeting on how to aid Africa.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said last week the prime minister is in “high spirits” heading into L’Aquila, brushing aside media suggestions he’s a lame duck.

The official referred to last year’s summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, where departing U.S. President George W. Bush still managed to play an important role during discussions.

“No one would be attending the summit” if it were limited to popular and strong premiers, he said.

But Aso’s high spirits aside, political analyst Itagaki questions the significance of the prime minister’s role in the G8 — especially since his pledges could see a full makeover if the DPJ wins the election.

While transitions of power and changes in diplomatic policies can take place in any country, a shift from a government led by the LDP to the DPJ could annul anything Aso says at the summit.

On climate change, Aso has proposed a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, equivalent to an 8 percent reduction from 1990 levels.

The opposition has criticized this pledge as weak and promises a 25 percent reduction by 2020 from 1990 levels.

The DPJ was also opposed to the enactment of the new antipiracy law that enables the dispatch of the MSDF to the Somali coast, arguing that the Diet should discuss and approve the send-off prior to any dispatch.

Tadafumi Ichimura, deputy secretary general of the nongovernmental group Forum for Peace, Human Rights and Environment, questions whether Aso can achieve anything in Italy.

While expressing hope that discussions on abolishing nuclear arms, climate change and the global economy will make progress during the summit, the activist said there is little chance Japan’s prime minister will play a key role.

“Its clear Prime Minister Aso lacks leadership,” Ichimura said, referring to his weak support at home.

Aso’s final legacy will not be of substance but probably more about how he passes on global issues to his successor to solve, Ichimura said.