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Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009

Fading Aso's hour to shine

60-minute meeting with Obama unlikely to alter prime minister's fate


Staff writer

The government is elated that Prime Minister Taro Aso will become on Tuesday the first head of state to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House.

But experts doubt that Aso — considered a lame duck with mere months before a major election reshapes the Lower House landscape — will leave a lasting impression, let alone manage to capitalize on the brief chat and raise his sagging approval rate.

According to media reports, the Aso-Obama summit wasn't even scheduled until Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was aboard her flight to Tokyo last week. The surprise announcement was made during an otherwise lackluster news conference between Clinton and Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone on Feb. 17.

With the Diet in midsession, Aso will travel 26 hours for a one-night stay in Washington that includes his 60-minute talk with Obama. A Foreign Ministry official said a specific outline of Aso's "bullet tour" remains undetermined due to the short notice.

"Mr. Obama and his staff are in Canada now and we haven't been able to talk about our schedule. We'll have to work during the weekend," the ministry official said Friday evening.

While Aso may have won the golden ticket to be the first to meet Obama at the White House, he can achieve little.

Asked if the two planned to sign any significant agreement or a joint statement, a Foreign Ministry official smiled and acknowledged that little can be ironed out with only a week of preparation.

Echoing a similar view, Motofumi Asai, president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, a research center at Hiroshima City University, said, "It's only been a week since the foreign ministers' meeting took place, and I don't expect progress to be made between Obama and Aso."

Asai, a former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat, said ministry officials will try to give the event a positive spin. But the Aso administration has little room to confront global issues, given its struggles at home.

"Its easy to imagine that Aso wants this commemorative meeting to boost his image," Asai said, adding, however, that the public will not be so blind.

But the summit is nevertheless seen as a triumph by the government, which worried Washington might favor China over Japan in Asia.

Nakasone, as well as many ministry officials, noted that Clinton signaled Japan is the cornerstone of U.S. policies in Asia by visiting Tokyo first.

"The significance of the meeting is the meeting itself. It embodies and symbolizes stronger ties between Japan and the U.S.," a Foreign Ministry official said, expressing gratitude that Obama agreed to meet Aso despite his tight schedule.

He also said Aso was one of nine heads of state to get a call from Obama after he won the presidential poll in November.

Some of the topics likely to be on the agenda during the White House meeting include the Pyongyang denuclearization and abductee issues, climate change programs and Japan's role in fighting global terrorism.

Reports suggest Tokyo and Washington could specify ways for Japan to collaborate with a U.S. policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But bilateral coordination against the global economic downturn will be the key issue, and this will be problematic for Japan, which has yet to demonstrate either capability or leadership in stabilizing world finances.

This was highlighted by the embarrassing performance Feb. 21 in Rome by Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa at a Group of Seven news conference.

Economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano, who was given the added finance minister portfolio after Nakagawa's subsequent exit in disgrace, was unable to attend the Sunday ministerial meeting in Thailand of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations due to a scheduling conflict.

Japan's economy is meanwhile crashing, its GDP marking the sharpest downturn since the oil crisis in 1974.

With Aso's marginal approval rate and the Liberal Democratic Party's expected ouster from power in the next election, it is curious why Obama agreed to meet Aso.

Ex-bureaucrat Asai explains that Washington is well aware of Japan's struggling economy and declining global influence, but feels Tokyo can still contribute to antiterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

"Experts at the White House probably gave Obama the wisdom that Japan values formality" over substance, Asai said, pointing out that Washington isn't holding its breath for any bilateral progress during the meeting.



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