‘George’ and ‘Shinzo’ bond over North Korea and China

NEWS ANALYSIS

“GEORGE” and “Shinzo” pulled it off.

Another Japanese prime minister has bonded with a US president, reflecting a 50-year-old alliance that on Friday was said to be growing into an “unshakeable” one.

The outcome of a summit here between Mr George W. Bush and Mr Shinzo Abe registered more than a blooming friendship between the two men.

Their meeting underscored yet again the strategic convergence of the world’s two largest economies.

At a press conference on Friday at the Camp David presidential retreat, the two leaders repeatedly addressed each other by their first names. And Mr Bush expressed his admiration for Mr Abe’s wife.

Akie, praising the Japanese Premier for marrying well.

More significantly, he extended an invitation to Mr Abe to visit his private ranch in Texas – what the US leader called “a little slice of heaven”.

An invitation to Camp David shows that a foreign leader is in the First Team. But being offered a trip to the Crawford Ranch seals the deal.

Blossoming personal ties aside, the summit also showed the growing importance of the US-Japan alliance – best captured in Mr Abe’s own words.

He said: “The biggest objective of my visit this time was to reaffirm the irreplaceable Japan-US alliance, and to grow this stronger as an unshakeable one.”

The talks between the two leaders were clearly of a strategic dimension, and both shared common ground even if there seemed to be tactical differences on key issues.

On North Korea – which dominated the Camp David talks – they sang the same tune amid concerns in Tokyo that US policy towards Pyongyang had gone “too soft”.

While both governments publicly agree on the direction of disarmament talks with North Korea, Japanese conservatives have criticised American moves to engage the hardline communist regime in bilateral discussions.

Significantly, Mr Bush and Mr Abe took a tough joint stand against Pyongyang: They threatened more sanctions if it did not implement steps to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

North Korea has been a major factor that has brought the US and Japan closer together. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile tests in July last year and its threats to carry out an underground nuclear bomb test have increased Tokyo’s sense of insecurity.

China’s rapid military modernisation is another factor. US officials disclosed that China featured in the talks, along with Iran and Iraq.

Mr Bush certainly pressed Mr Abe to accept US beef imports among outstanding trade problems to resolve, and the “comfort women” issue continues to be touchy as Congress pushes for a resolution.

But the tenor of the overall summit was more international than bilateral – reflecting Japan’s rising international role, and an alliance that is shaping up to be one of equals.

As Stratfor, the Houston-based intelligence consultancy, noted, Mr Abe’s predecessors had all made it a point to visit the United States first – to highlight the strength and importance of the bilateral relationship. But Mr Abe wanted to demonstrate that it was now strong enough to forgo the formalities by visiting a string of countries before arriving in Washington.

By making his first four visits to other Asian nations that included China and South Korea, Mr Abe also showed Japan’s emerging role as a regional leader.

His trip to Europe in January reflected Japan’s burgeoning global role, as will his visit to the Middle East now.

For Japan, close ties with the US continue to be central to its calculations.

Tokyo has done two things to win over the Bush administration as it steps out of the shadows of its post-World War II defeat and pacifist policies.

One is to help out in international operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other is reinterpreting the Japanese Constitution to allow a more active military role that includes developing and deploying new missile defence systems.

Both today are crucial to US military planning.

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