TOKYO (Reuters) - Warm handshakes and smiles for the cameras will be in evidence when U.S. and Japanese leaders meet on Friday for the first time since Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda took office, but the brief summit stands little chance of resolving the security headaches bedeviling the alliance.
Japan’s stalled naval mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Tokyo’s worries over Washington’s warming ties with North Korea will top the agenda when Fukuda makes his diplomatic debut at a summit in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush.
The 71-year-old Japanese leader, who took over in September when his predecessor suddenly quit, is likely to come back empty-handed to Tokyo, where a standoff with opposition parties controlling parliament’s upper house is paralyzing policy.
To the dismay of U.S. policy makers, Japan was forced this month to halt its refueling mission for U.S. and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean after opposition parties refused to agree to a new bill to allow the operations to continue.
For its part, Tokyo fears that Washington may further improve its ties with North Korea in talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, leaving Tokyo out in the cold in its spat with the reclusive communist state over the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped by the North’s agents decades ago.
Fukuda said he would have “frank” talks with Bush to boost bilateral ties.
“Unless we have solid Japan-U.S. relations, we can’t fix our diplomatic stance on Asia,” Fukuda told reporters shortly before leaving for Washington. “We must strive to further strengthen Japan-U.S. relations and expand bilateral exchanges. Based on that premise, we want to proceed with our Asia diplomacy.”
Norihiko Narita, a political science professor at Surugadai University, who served as an aide to prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa in the early-1990s, when U.S.-Japan relations were also fraught, said Fukuda was on a particularly difficult diplomatic mission.
“I can’t recall in my memory a Japan-U.S. relationship so full of problems,” he said.
“The U.S. visit is going to be a heavy burden for Fukuda,” Narita added. “He faces a tough domestic political situation, so his options are very limited.”
Parliament’s lower house this week approved a government bill to restart the naval mission, but its enactment is far from certain given that the main opposition Democratic Party and its smaller allies, who can delay legislation, are against it.
“The passage in the lower house is a ‘gift’ that Fukuda can bring to Bush, but it is a very small one,” said Toshikazu Inoue, a political science professor at Gakushuin University.
The ruling coalition could use its two-thirds majority in the lower house to override an upper house vote, but the rarely used tactic could spark a backlash and even trigger a snap election.
Many analysts say both the ruling coalition, which suffered a devastating defeat in the July upper house poll, and the Democrats want to avoid an early general election.
The Democrats’ image was dented when its leader first talked with Fukuda about a coalition, tendered his resignation after his own party rejected the notion, and then changed his mind days later. But media surveys have shown few gains for Fukuda’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party from the confusing political drama.
No lower house election need be held until 2009, but analysts say an earlier poll is likely next year given the policy gridlock.
Japanese officials said Fukuda and Bush will confirm the two countries were cooperating in efforts to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
“Japan has its own position and it is natural that we should defend our position,” Fukuda said. “I would like to have a frank exchange of views.”
But prospects that the United States will remove North Korea from its list of nations sponsoring terrorism are worrying Tokyo, which wants the step delayed until Pyongyang comes clean about its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train North Korean spies — an emotive topic for many Japanese voters.
Pyongyang says Washington promised to take North Korea off the list by the end of the year and on Tuesday, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said there was no specific link between the issues of delisting and the abductees.
The United States also wants Japan to realize an agreement on reorganizing U.S. forces in the country, to refrain from reducing financial support for the U.S. troops, and to lift restrictions on imports of U.S. beef — issues facing opposition from local residents, taxpayers or consumers worried about food safety.
Fukuda will meet Bush for an hour-long summit followed by a working lunch also lasting an hour during his stay in Washington, which will be just over 24 hours in total.
(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno)
Editing by Sophie Hardach