Prime Minister Taro Aso seems eager to meet the new president of the United States, Barack Obama, as the initial step toward accomplishing something big in the field of diplomacy, and in an effort to put the brakes on the downward spiral of his popularity at home.

If history is used as a yardstick, however, an early session with Obama may not necessarily augur well: Three of Aso’s predecessors were forced to step down within months of visiting the White House to confer with its new occupant.

Aso has so far not scored any success in his diplomatic agenda since he took over the reins of government last fall. A solution to the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese is nowhere in sight; his bid to invite the forthcoming “financial summit” of the Group of 20 nations to Tokyo has failed; and his chosen foreign minister, Hirofumi Nakasone, son of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, has been criticized for doing nothing more than reading statements prepared by bureaucrats.

Shortly after the U.S. presidential election in November, the prime minister’s aides proposed that Aso fly to Chicago to meet with Obama, who would be on his way home from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit meeting in Peru. When this proposal was turned down, Japan sounded out the White House with the idea of having the first Aso-Obama meeting in the U.S. capital over a weekend toward the end of February. To date, however, no favorable reply has been received.

One ranking official of the Foreign Ministry was optimistic that the two would meet before the end of March, pointing out that although the U.S. traditionally tended to ignore full-scale diplomatic activities, being satisfied with only having leaders of other countries listen to U.S. policies, the new government under Obama is likely to be more positive about pursuing and promoting its relations with Japan.

Yet no date has been set for an Aso-Obama meeting, apparently because Japan is not high on the list of priorities for the new U.S. administration’s diplomatic agenda. The Foreign Ministry official commented that a part of Obama’s inaugural address said: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” Conspicuously missing from this passage, he points out, is a reference to Buddhism, which is the predominant religion in Japan and which has 6 million followers even in the United States.

According to diplomatic sources in Washington, the most important diplomatic issue for the Obama administration is restoring peace and security in Afghanistan. Ranking second is ending the feud and establishing peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. There is nothing of third or fourth importance, these sources say, and fifth comes the Chinese economy.

It was this lukewarm attitude of Washington toward Tokyo that prompted Aso to name former Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi to the post of Japanese Government Representative with a dual role of representing the prime minister in various formal events and serving as his diplomatic adviser. Yachi worked closely with Aso in drawing up an initiative titled “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons” when Aso was foreign minister. It called for creation of an “arc” covering large portions of the Eurasian continent from Vietnam and Cambodia to Ukraine and the Caucasian nations. This initiative was shelved by then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Aso predecessor, for fear of unnecessarily provoking China and Russia.

In asking Yachi to assume the new post, Aso specifically asked him to work toward reviving the “arc” initiative. This apparently was meant both to appeal to the new American administration and to express his overall dissatisfaction toward the performance of Foreign Ministry officials.

Yachi is said to have confided to his close colleagues that Washington is likely to ask Tokyo to redefine the bilateral alliance, and that Japan must therefore be prepared to respond positively and work toward building more equitable bilateral relations. In his view, the Obama administration will ask Japan to go further than its current cooperation in the war in Afghanistan, which includes supplying fuel to American and other naval vessels in the Indian Ocean, and that it will ask Japan to agree to exercise its “right to collective self-defense.” The Japanese government’s position so far has been that although the nation has such a right, it is banned by the war-renouncing Constitution to exercise it.

The dilemma facing the Aso government is that it is next to impossible to alter the constitutional interpretation regarding this right in view of the opposition expressed even by Komeito, the junior partner in the ruling coalition. But turning down the American demand to exercise that right would exacerbate Washington’s “passing” of Japan.

Another headache for Aso is the U.S. attitude toward the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea. In her telephone conversation with Foreign Minister Nakasone, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was quoted as saying that she did not regard the issue lightly and had deep sympathy for the abductees’ families and the people of Japan. Some, however, do not rule out the possibility that her words may turn out to be just lip service.

Adding to this headache is the diplomatic policy of reconciliation with anti-American countries pursued by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is said to play the key role in the Obama administration’s foreign affairs. He has been a strong supporter of Christopher R. Hill, the former assistant secretary of state who has served as the chief American negotiator in the six-nation talks for having North Korea give up on developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. has already eliminated Pyongyang from its list of states supporting terrorism. Biden also favors more peaceful approaches to countries like Iraq and Iran.

Ichiro Fujisaki, Japanese ambassador to Washington, is under constant pressure from Tokyo to schedule a meeting between Aso and Obama as soon as possible. An early session, however, could be a jinx if history repeats itself. In February 1989, Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita met with President George H.W. Bush shortly after the latter took office. In April 1993, Kiichi Miyazawa was in the White House for talks with newly elected Bill Clinton. By coincidence, both Takeshita and Miyazawa were forced to step down four months after their meetings. In March 2001, Yoshiro Mori held talks with new President George W. Bush, only to have to resign within one month.

Will Aso be able to meet with Obama anytime soon? If he does, will he be able to put an end to that jinx? It will not be a long wait before the answers are known.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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