Poisoned chalice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 February, 2009, 12:00am

The ultimate accolade a national leader could receive in these troubled times is to be chosen by US President Barack Obama to be the first foreign dignitary to meet him at the White House. There is no other person in the world who at present commands such confidence and respect; the political cache from such a meeting is priceless. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, his opinion poll ratings close to single digits and the ever-worsening Japanese economy pushing him towards either resigning or calling an early election, has eagerly accepted the offer. He could not have turned it down but, if history is any guide, he will regret having been selected.

The White House said in announcing next Tuesday's visit that the leaders 'will consult on effective measures to respond to the global financial crisis and will discuss North Korea and other issues'. Both countries are mired in recession and, as the world's biggest economies, it seems natural that they would work together to look for a way out. Pyongyang claims it is about to fire a missile into space, so meeting in the name of security would also seem wise. A third reason lies in Japan being America's key Asian ally.

Now, let's turn to the historical record and go back to the pages devoted to this time of year in 2001. That February 12, the White House announced that Mr Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, would welcome then Japanese leader Yoshiro Mori to Washington for a working visit on March 19. It said that the two, whose countries had important shared security objectives in the Asia-Pacific region, would exchange views 'on regional and global issues' and discuss 'ways to strengthen the alliance and overall bilateral co-operation'.

Mr Bush had been president for less than two months when he met Mr Mori, who took office 11 months earlier. Their discussions centred on strengthening their economies and security. The Japanese leader was in deep political trouble at the time - so much so that, the week before he left, he indicated he would resign. Junichiro Koizumi replaced him on April 26.

The respected Asahi newspaper's opinion poll put Mr Mori's approval rating at 9 per cent on the week he went to the US. Mr Aso's is 14 per cent, although other surveys have in recent weeks also put it at 9 per cent. He has resisted calls from within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan to quit or call parliamentary elections, which must be held by September. But the pressure mounted considerably on Tuesday, when his finance minister, Shoichi Nakagawa, stepped down over odd behaviour at the Group of Seven meeting in Rome at the weekend.

Economic data this week showed Japan's economy contracting at the fastest rate in 35 years. Mr Aso has been criticised for being weak on fighting the downturn and for a series of gaffes. His party is deeply divided on key issues and is threatening to splinter. The opposition is in a strong position to seize outright power for the first time in six decades. There could be no worse time for him to go on an overseas trip.

The ruling party has been floundering for direction since Mr Koizumi's resignation in September 2006. Mr Aso, who has been in office for five months, is its third leader in that time. The opposition, under Ichiro Ozawa, may be in a strong position, but it has been quiet on specific policies to pull Japan from its mess. Doubts are growing that it has a viable formula.

Neither party can come up with a short-term solution. Vehicle and electronics exports are in freefall; investment and gross domestic product are following. A way out can come only in the middle to long term.

Mr Aso's trip will only last a matter of days, but it could easily be his swansong. At least six politicians are jockeying for his job. I plump for history and say he will be out of office within weeks of meeting Mr Obama. Using the same formula, a clue to successors may lie in his entourage: during Mr Mori's fateful American visit almost seven years ago, Mr Aso accompanied him as the minister of state for economic and fiscal policy.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post