Abe off to US to boost bilateral alliance

Leaders expected to show solidarity despite lack of personal chemistry.

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, unlike his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, has not managed to establish a close personal bond with US President George W. Bush.

So, for his first visit to the United States, which begins today, Mr Abe will be trying to strengthen the bilateral alliance which has been slowly drifting apart, especially over how to deal with the North Korea nuclear standoff.

It will be tough, in the absence of personal chemistry between the two leaders.

Mr Abe maintains a tough stance towards Pyongyang, which has stalled normalisation talks between Japan and the North, while Washington is taking an increasingly softer line that has alarmed Japanese lawmakers.

Tomorrow’s summit talks at Camp David offer Mr Abe and Mr Bush an opportunity to show the world that nothing is amiss in the two countries’ relationship.

“The top priority for Mr Abe’s visit should be to make a clear and strong confirmation of strategic unity between the two countries, which is crucial for ensuring that North Korea abandons its nuclear ambitions completely,” said the influential Nikkei business daily.

Despite the lack of personal rapport, Washington will still be looking to the Japanese leader to show that he, just like Mr Koizumi, is a strong steward of the 50-year-old US-Japan alliance.

Dr Michael Green, an influential Japan scholar and former Bush aide in charge of Asia at the National Security Council, told The Straits Times: “President Bush needs to show that the US investment in the alliance with Japan was wise and that Japan is ready to step up and play a larger role in global affairs.”

To underline his intent to deepen the alliance, Mr Abe brings to Washington updates of his efforts to revise Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution that would give the Japanese military a larger global role.

In parallel to this, a government panel has been set up to study how Japan can go to the aid of an ally if the latter is attacked.

On Mr Abe’s pet issue – the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s – the Premier has promised families of abductees he would urge Mr Bush to help resolve the issue.

But Mr Bush is unlikely to offer Mr Abe more than lip service and sympathy, say analysts.

“If Japan stresses the issue too much, it runs the risk of hurting ties with America in the long run,” said Professor Kan Kimura, a Korea scholar at Kobe University.

For its part, Washington will be looking for signs of whether Japan’s commitment to Iraq is weakening.

Interestingly, both leaders will visit wounded Iraq veterans today in what could be a symbolic show of support from Mr Abe.

Another potential nuclear power is also likely to loom large in the Camp David talks: Iran.

In recent years, oil sales have boosted relations between Iran and Japan, which imports nearly all the oil that it needs to power its economy. The growing ties are a concern to Washington, which suspects Teheran of developing a nuclear bomb.

Asia expert Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution said: “Iran is a major concern for this administration and Mr Bush
will want to impress on Mr Abe the dangers that Teheran poses to the rest of the world.”

The US is also expected to press Japan to relax its tight controls on US beef imports. Currently, only cuts from cattle up to 20 months old are allowed.

Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus has demanded that tonight’s dinner with Mr Abe features steak from his Montana home town to underscore the continued problems with Japan over full access for US beef.

A resolution in Congress calling for Japan to apologise for forcibly recruiting women as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II could cast a shadow on Mr Abe’s visit.

Mr Abe insists that the matter is over as he had made clear to Mr Bush on the phone earlier this month that he stands by a 1993 statement acknowledging official involvement in the military brothels and expressing remorse.

Though the issue is unlikely to be raised in their talks, Mr Abe is expected to be greeted by protesters, and the perception that he is trying to whitewash Japan’s wartime past could well linger in Washington.

Mr Abe’s US visit takes place a full seven months after he took office, a clear reflection of the change in the US-Japan relationship.

Neither of Mr Abe’s defence and foreign ministers – who have both criticised US policy in Iraq – has visited Washington.

Meanwhile, the Japanese leader will have in tow a 180-strong business mission when he tours five Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Dakar and Egypt – on the second leg of his trip from April 28 to June 3.

The mission signals not only Japan’s desire to secure stable supplies of energy and other resources from the Arab world but also a growing interest in participating in these Arab nations’ bid to diversify their economies by boosting manufacturing, tourism and finance.

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