TOKYO (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will reassure Prime Minister Taro Aso this week that Tokyo remains a key ally, but questions remain as to whether a summit with the lame duck Japanese leader can yield concrete results.
Officials point to an agenda stretching from the global economic crisis to Afghanistan and North Korea as reasons for Tuesday’s meeting, which comes just a month after Obama took office and is his first with a foreign leader at the White House.
But many analysts agree the main aim is to soothe Tokyo’s niggling worries over its place as Washington’s top ally in Asia.
“Here in Japan, there is always some concern that a new U.S. administration, particularly a Democratic administration, will shift toward China,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at Tokyo University.
“They want to send a clear message to Japan that they really think Japan is an important ally.”
Coming just a week after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off her first foreign tour with a trip to Tokyo, during which she underscored her view that ties with Japan were a cornerstone of U.S. policy in Asia, that message could hardly be clearer.
The deeply unpopular Aso will be looking for a bounce in popularity from the meeting, with a new poll showing more than a third of voters want him to resign now, and a similar number calling for him to go once parliament passes some budget bills.
The two leaders are likely to share concerns over the global economy ahead of a London summit of major economies in April.
Japan experienced its worst contraction since the 1970s in the final quarter of 2008, as exports nosedived. Obama signed a $787 billion economic stimulus package last week, in a bid to fight the deepening recession.
Afghanistan will also be near the top of the agenda, after Obama last week agreed on a boost of 17,000 troops aimed at stabilizing the deteriorating situation and Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on allies for more help.
But analysts say there is little chance Obama will lean on Aso to provide military “boots on the ground” as popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi did for then-U.S. president George W. Bush in Iraq.
Critics called the dispatch of non-combat troops to Iraq a breach of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
A Mainichi newspaper survey published on Monday showed nearly 80 percent of voters want Aso to resign either immediately or after the annual budget for the year from April is passed, while a mere 11 percent support his cabinet after a series of gaffes and policy flip-flops added to public concern over the recession.
Fifty-one percent said they wanted the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan to defeat the long-ruling Liberal Democrats in the next election, which must be held by October.
“The U.S. government people are well aware of the fact that there is an extraordinary situation in Tokyo right now, that the capacity of the government to focus sustained attention and expend political capital on alliance issues is diminished,” said Brad Glosserman of Hawaii-based think tank Pacific Forum
Instead the focus will be on maintaining the momentum of Japan’s humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and neighboring areas, he added.
Japan has offered to host a donors’ conference for Pakistan, which Japanese media say may be held in March.
Aso may be hoping that meeting Obama, who is well liked by the Japanese public, will give him with a modest boost in opinion polls, but the visit carries a degree of risk.
“If he comes back to criticism that the trip was a disappointment to the Americans, or that he made commitments that the public doesn’t support, such as sending troops to Afghanistan — if he disappoints either the Americans or the Japanese — that will pile pressure on him to quit,” said Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis.
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Caren Bohan, Editing by Dean Yates