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Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is coming under increasing pressure to resign. One likely scenario, according to sources in the ruling coalition, goes something like this: In early March, after the fiscal 2001 government budget clears the Lower House, he announces his intention to step down, and later that month, with the budget approved by the Diet, his Cabinet resigns.

For all practical purposes, Mori is already a lame-duck prime minister. Yet he seems to be trying to shore up his plunging popularity through an artificial display of leadership on the diplomatic front. If so, he will be doing the nation a disservice.

Mori has aroused public outrage by his callous reaction to the Feb. 9 ramming and sinking of a Japanese fisheries training boat by a U.S. submarine off Hawaii. He continued to play golf after receiving a report of the tragedy.

On Feb. 13, Mori phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreed to meet him on March 25 in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia. Japan is seeking to sign a long-pending peace treaty with Russia by settling the territorial dispute, but Moscow is getting tough, as if the issue were nonexistent.

Before meeting Putin, Mori wants to meet U.S. President George W. Bush, perhaps in early March. As things stand, however, a Mori-Bush summit seems unlikely. Informed sources here say Washington is watching to see how things will develop vis-a-vis the Mori administration.

With the inauguration of the Bush administration, the situation in East Asia, particularly on the Korean Peninsula, is beginning to change significantly. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who made a surprise trip to China in January, is expected to visit South Korea this spring. The China trip must have been part of his preparations for his coming visit to Seoul.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is set to meet Bush on March 7 prior to his rendezvous with the North Korean leader. Kim intends to reaffirm to Bush that South Korea will work closely with the United States in dealing with Pyongyang.

The U.S. policy toward North Korea is in for a comprehensive review, according to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The indications are that the Bush administration will take a tougher stand than the Clinton administration on issues such as Pyongyang’s missile-development program.

As for Japan-North Korea relations, normalization talks are stalled over the alleged abduction of Japanese civilians by North Korean agents. To get the talks rolling, Japan requires continued teamwork with South Korea and the U.S. But political turmoil here leaves Tokyo little room for summit diplomacy.

Bush has ordered Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to conduct a wholesale review of the U.S. military strategy — a move that is likely to change the makeup, as well as the posture of the U.S. armed forces.

That should give Japan a good opportunity to consult with Washington on ways to solve the problem of U.S. bases in Okinawa and elsewhere in this country. Japan has established legislation for implementing the defense-cooperation guidelines under the 1996 Japan-U.S. security declaration. The legislation includes a law that allows the Self-Defense Forces to give logistic support to U.S. forces during contingencies in areas surrounding Japan. However, little progress has been made toward the consolidation of Okinawan bases.

The U.S. military has refused to deliver a marine suspected of arson in Okinawa to Japanese authorities prior to indictment. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono has said the Status of Forces Agreement may have to be revised if ways to improve its operation cannot be found.

But a revision to the agreement, which is based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, requires a strong alliance between the two nations and therefore strong political leadership on both sides. An administration that has lost public support cannot address such a weighty issue.

A cloud of doubt also hangs over Mori’s coming meeting with Putin. The question is why it must be held at this time. Japan’s basic aim, of course, is to sign a peace treaty after regaining sovereignty over the Northern Territories (Etorofu Island, Kunashiri Island, Habomai Island and Shikotan Island). In 1997, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed at their meeting in Krasnoyarsk that the two nations should do their utmost to sign the treaty by the end of 2000 under the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which called for the resolution of the Northern Territories issue.

However, Putin, during his official visit here last September, made no concessions, although he agreed to continue negotiations.

Some members of the Liberal Democratic Party argue that Japan should settle first for the smaller Habomai and Shikotan islands. They are sending a wrong signal to Russia that Japan will accept a partial settlement by giving up its claims to the other two islands. This has injected confusion into the diplomatic negotiations with Russia.

The Tokyo Declaration mentions all four islands. In it, the two nations agreed that a peace treaty should be signed after resolving the territorial problem on the basis of historical and legal facts and of their previous written agreements and the principles of law and justice. Mori and Putin confirmed that basic position in a joint statement issued after their last meeting.

Former Prime Minister Hashimoto, now the state minister in charge of Okinawa and the Northern Territories, has denied speculation that Japan may have changed its policy of getting back all four islands in a package deal. Responding to questions in the Diet, he said the government has consistently demanded the handover of all four islands in the talks with Moscow. However, the “two islands first” theory has given the Russians the impression that Japanese policy is confused, and has weakened Japan’s bargaining position.

Mori himself may have undermined that position by getting an LDP politician involved in government-level territorial negotiations. The politician — the head of the party secretariat — carried Mori’s personal letter to Putin during his visit to Moscow last December. Such dual diplomacy can be taken as a sign of weakness.

Mori says the purpose of the coming summit is to agree to continue talks based on a personal relationship of trust with Putin. However, the foreign minister’s meeting in January made no substantial progress. There is not much sense in holding a summit without promises of agreement. If Mori is trying to deflect the pressure for his resignation by diplomacy, he will likely play into Putin’s hands.

A territorial dispute, involving as it does the fundamental question of sovereignty, is a long-term issue that calls for a lot of patience. If the Mori administration seeks a quick fix as a way of prolonging its life, it will hurt Japan’s long-term interests.

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