TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda heads Thursday to Washington in his diplomatic debut as he tries to overcome domestic opposition to supporting the US-led ‘war on terror’. Fukuda’s first foreign trip as premier also comes amid disagreements between the Pacific allies over North Korea, with Japan pressing the United States to keep its communist rival on a list of state supporters of terrorism.

Fukuda, a 71-year-old political veteran who took over in September amid turmoil in the ruling party, will spend little more than a day in Washington, meeting on Friday with President George Bush before heading to an Asian summit in Singapore.

It marks a return to Japanese leaders’ tradition of making the United States their first foreign destination.

“Many Japanese, not just myself, think US-Japan relations are by far the most important and most valuable,” Fukuda said before his trip.

Fukuda’s predecessor, outspoken conservative Shinzo Abe, had called for a broader view and travelled in Asia and also Europe before visiting Washington seven months into his term.

Abe quit after the opposition, which won one house of parliament in July elections following domestic scandals, vowed to end Japan’s military mission backing the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan.

Just two days before leaving, Fukuda’s coalition pushed through the lower house of parliament a bill to resume the naval mission, which provided fuel and other support in the Indian Ocean to US and other forces in Afghanistan.

But the outlook stays grim for Fukuda as the opposition, which controls the upper house, protests that Japan should not take part in ‘American wars’. Japan has been officially pacifist since the end of World War II, making all of its military operations overseas controversial.

Opposition parties accused Fukuda of rushing to pass the bill at least in the lower house before his US visit, denouncing it as a gift for Bush.

But analysts said Fukuda, due to the current deadlock in parliament, will be unable to do much more than show good intentions to his most important ally.

“Fukuda will send the conventional message to Bush that Japan’s alliance with the United States is solid,” said Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of international politics at Waseda University.

“That he passed the bill at the lower house will be a souvenir for Bush,” he said. “But it’s still not full legislation yet.” Japan’s lower house could override the upper house, but the opposition has warned that it may then pass a censure motion. The ruling party in turn has threatened that it would lead to a snap general election.

Akira Kato, a professor at Obirin University, said Fukuda’s diplomatic debut will be restrained by the domestic situation.

“In this trip, Fukuda will try to feel out Washington’s reactions and then probably decide how he should tackle the domestic political stalemate,” he said. Along with the naval mission, Japan has distanced itself from the United States over North Korea.

The US has agreed it would take North Korea off a list of state sponsors of terrorism if it sees progress in a February six-nation deal under which Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear drive.

Japan has strongly opposed the idea, demanding progress first in an emotionally charged row over North Korea’s kidnappings of Japanese. The US has repeatedly said it shares its ally’s concerns, but many doubt it would hold off on the North Korea deal — seen as a diplomatic achievement for the Bush administration — due to Japan.

“It seems to me that the gap between the stances of Japan and the United States over this issue has been widening significantly,” Yamamoto said.

North Korea has admitted snatching Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies and returned five of them in 2002. Tokyo believes more are alive and being hidden by North Korea.

North Korea would be eligible for US aid and loans from international institutions if it is removed from the terrorism list.

—AFP

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