Prime Minister Taro Aso met with U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday in Washington, just a week after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during her visit to Tokyo, invited him to meet with the president as the first foreign leader to be invited to the White House since Mr. Obama came to power.
The U.S. administration’s solicitous treatment of Mr. Aso appears to be an attempt to quell worries in Japan that the United States under the new administration may give priority to China in its dealing with the Asia-Pacific region. But it also shows that the U.S. has high expectations that Japan will play meaningful roles in the international community in tackling various issues ranging from the world economic recession to the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mr. Aso, who is suffering from low approval ratings — 13.4 percent in a recent Kyodo News poll — apparently hoped that his meeting with the U.S. president will give his administration a shot in the arm. As if to respond to his wishes, Mr. Obama called Japan “a great partner” in coping with global issues and characterized the bilateral alliance as the “cornerstone” of security in East Asia. He pledged that the U.S. will continue to fulfill its responsibility of defending Japan, including providing a nuclear umbrella. He also said the invitation to Mr. Aso as his first foreign leader guest to the White House attested to “the strong partnership between the United States and Japan.”
But the usual hospitalities, such as a joint press conference and lunch, were lacking. One reason could be Mr. Obama’s tight schedule, including his first speech before Congress after the meeting. But the U.S. may have thought that the Aso administration is a lame duck and will be short-lived. Nevertheless, Washington’s message should be that it wants Japan to be its partner in solving problems confronting the world whoever may be in power.
On the economic front, both Mr. Aso and Mr. Obama agreed to work together to prepare for the Group of 20 financial summit in London on April 2. They also agreed to fight against protectionism and to help maintain confidence in the U.S. dollar. Mr. Aso expressed his determination for an early conclusion of the Doha round of world trade liberalization talks. It will require that he overcome vested interests at home if he wants to achieve the goal. Mr. Obama hoped that Japan and China will make efforts to increase domestic demand. This will be an important task for Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Regrettably, Mr. Aso is not speedy enough in getting the Diet to pass necessary measures.
It is encouraging that Mr. Obama gave understanding to Mr. Aso’s call for a “comprehensive solution” to North Korea’s nuclear development program, the past abduction of Japanese citizens by the North and its threat to test-launch a ballistic missile. Both agreed to closely cooperate at the six-party talks to ensure a “complete and verifiable denuclearization” of North Korea.
The leaders agreed to steadily implement realignment of the U.S. armed forces in Japan on the basis of a road map agreed on between the two nations. But Mr. Aso should realize that the transfer of 8,000 U.S. marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam, an important part of the realignment, will not happen unless Futenma Air Station in Ginowan is moved to Nago. The Okinawa prefectural government is against the current relocation plan.
At the outset of the meeting, Mr. Obama took up global warming and Afghanistan and the two leaders exchanged opinions. They agreed not only to start talks on cooperation in development of clean energy sources and energy conservation but also to work together to create a post-2012 global emissions reduction framework. Unlike the Bush administration, which opposed the Kyoto Protocol, the Obama administration is serious about emissions cuts. But one wonders if Japan can play a constructive role in world efforts against global warming as it is facing difficulty in fulfilling its emissions reduction obligation under the Kyoto Protocol.
As for Afghanistan, Mr. Aso came up with concrete measures. Japan will soon appoint a special envoy to take part in a U.S. review of its strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and to meet with his U.S. counterpart Richard Holbrooke. Japan will also host a donor conference on Pakistan in April. Mr. Obama hoped that Japan will contribute to development and infrastructure construction in Afghanistan. It will be important for Japan to utilize its experience in improving people’s welfare in Afghanistan and work out effective ways to contribute to its reconstruction.
Clearly the Obama administration wants Japan to play meaningful roles as a partner not only in solving bilateral problems but also in tackling global issues. It will be imperatively for Japan to act speedily while upholding the principles and spirit of the Constitution.
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