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JAPAN: Abe’s US Visit – One More Step to a Formal Military

Analysis by Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Apr 25 2007 (IPS) - More than half-a-year after he took office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pay his first visit to the United States on Thursday – a much delayed trip considering that Japan-U.S. ties are top priority.

”The upcoming visit is a crucial one for Japan. Prime Minister Abe needs to reconfirm Japan’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance against his deepening ties with Asia and his mission for a more dominant role of Japan in the future,” said Prof. Osamu Nishii at Komazawa University.

At the top of the agenda is the establishment of a joint commission of experts to foster closer ties, based on the changing global environment where the two richest countries in the world will discuss a new Free Trade Agreement and how that cooperation will lead the world.

Nishii an expert on constitutional reform in Japan pointed out that Abe, a conservative, has taken the unprecedented step of reforming the country’s post-war constitution that was drafted under U.S. occupation following Japan’s defeat that ended World War ll in 1945.

Last week, Japan’s House of Representatives passed a motion to discuss, for the first time, a review of the Japanese constitution – also called the peace constitution, given restrictions on Japan’s ‘Self-Defence Forces’ joining military activities abroad.

A change in the constitution will pave the way for Japan to have an official military, and support Abe’s agenda for the country to resurrect from its past wartime guilt, based on its commitment to peace over the past 60 years.

The visit is expected to confirm U.S. President’s George Bush’s support for Abe when the two leaders meet at Camp David and hold a summit on Apr. 27, according to the media here.

The ‘Oriental Economist’, a publication by Japanese experts, said: ”Abe’s agenda is not anti-American. It is pro-Japanese. Abe argues that Japan should be proud of itself and assume a reasonable, responsible role in global security affairs – in cooperation with the U.S.”

Indeed, Abe, fresh on the heels of a successful visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, last week, appears ready to finally tackle the U.S. where he is seen as lagging behind his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who developed firm ties with Bush and staunchly supported the war in Iraq.

On the eve of his departure Abe sought to clear the air by supporting the 1993 official Yohei Kono statement that apologised for forcing women, mostly young Asians, to become sex slaves for the now defunct Japanese Imperial Army that colonised most of East and South-east Asia.

Abe caused an uproar when he denied in the Japanese Diet (parliament) that the women were coerced. His latest acknowledgment comes against a pending move in the U.S. Congress that calls on Japan to formally apologise for its past sex slave system, referred to as ‘comfort women’ here.

According to reports in the Japanese media Abe will avoid giving Japan’s backing for the U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation arrangement even if Bush calls for support during the visit.The U.S. and India signed a nuclear energy deal last March but this is yet to be approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a situation that is officially unacceptable in Japan.

Differences between Japan and the U.S. that have surfaced in dealing with North Korea are also likely to come up. Abe, follows a strong policy of insisting that North Korea return Japanese abducted by its regime through the position is not in line with the six-party stance – South Korea extended food aid to North Korea last week and Washington has pledged to release frozen North Korean funds in exchange for Pyongyang giving up nuclear arms development.

Prof. Yutaka Takaoka, an expert on the Middle East, says another important sign of Abe’s keenness to push ahead with Japan’s international diplomacy is his plan to fly from Washington to the Middle East for a five-nation tour, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt.

“The schedule to embark on a tour to the Middle-East shows the eagerness of Abe to develop stronger ties with the Middle East. Abe’s visit will usher in new ground, expanding the policy for a region that is a major supplier of oil. Moreover, Abe, this time, will show that Japan will play a role with the U.S. in the Middle East,” said Takaoka at the Middle-East Research Institute.

Takaoka referred to ongoing negotiations among Japanese financial companies to encourage more investment from the Middle-East as well as the decision of Abe to continue Japanese Self Defence activities in Iraq.

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