US President Barack Obama’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, scheduled for yesterday, brought together leaders with starkly different political fortunes: While Obama enjoys worldwide popularity, Aso is struggling to stay in power.
In selecting Aso as the first foreign leader to visit the Obama White House, however, the new US administration is interested less in giving him a boost than in sending a message, to Tokyo and to the world, that Japan, a sometimes-neglected ally, remains a vital partner in addressing global economic and security crises.
Japan trails only China as the largest foreign holder of US Treasury bonds, holdings that help finance the ever-growing US budget deficit. Japan also is the lynchpin of US security efforts in Asia, hosting about 50,000 US military personnel and working with the US and three other countries to press an increasingly hostile North Korea to give up its nuclear bombs.
Washington’s invitation to Aso, who arrived on Monday night, was a broad signal “to the Japanese political establishment that the Obama administration is going to work with whoever is there,” said Michael Auslin, a Japan specialist with the American Enterprise Institute think tank.
“If we continue to wait for the next Koizumi, the next strong leader, we’re going to be waiting forever,” Auslin said, referring to popular former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who left office in 2006.
Aso has faced single-digit approval ratings, appeals from his own party to resign and the worst Japanese recession in 50 years. His administration reached a low point last week when his finance minister stepped down after appearing to be drunk during a G7 finance ministers’ meeting.
Still, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s response when asked in Tokyo about the embarrassing resignation signaled a US willingness to stand by Japan regardless of political or economic turmoil.
“I think that the resilience of the Japanese people and the Japanese government is what’s important here,” she said.
Aso’s visit, while symbolically important, might be overshadowed as Obama presses a series of politically sensitive economic initiatives; Aso comes to Washington on the day of Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress.
Japan has been looking for US reassurance about its place as the top US ally in Asia. Some in Tokyo are worried about increasing US cooperation with, and dependence on, China on a host of diplomatic, economic and military matters.
Japan remains a rich country and can play an important role in world affairs that the US is hoping to influence, said former American Institute in Taiwan director Douglas Paal, by refueling US ships, boosting aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan, buoying states facing economic crises.
Clinton’s decision to make Tokyo her first destination as secretary of state, as well as Aso’s White House visit, are key signals.
“The sentiment in Japan is quite delicate right now in terms of what place it holds in US priorities,” said John Park, a senior researcher at the US Institute of Peace.