Hillary can't boost Japan's failing PM on Tokyo visit

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Feb. 17, 2009 at 10:47 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to boost the political fortunes of Prime Minister Taro Aso on her visit to Tokyo this week. But it looks like Mission Impossible.

Clinton has already honored Aso by making him the first major world leader she has flown out to visit since taking her new job as the director of American foreign policy. She followed up Tuesday by inviting Aso to fly out to Washington to meet her and President Barack Obama, making him the very first foreign leader to be so honored.

But any bounce the enormously unpopular Aso hoped to get out of Clinton's generosity was trumped at once by the fall of his own finance minister. Shoichi Nakagawa resigned Tuesday.

The immediate cause of Nakagawa's fall was his bizarre behavior at a news conference Saturday in which he slurred his words and appeared to be drunk. Nakagawa denied that allegation, of course, and claimed -- rather unconvincingly -- that he was just suffering from jet lag and a rather strong cold medicine.

In any case, Nakagawa has been a bad luck bear for the world's second-largest industrial economy. Japan's infallible cure for all economic problems for the past 60 years has focused on one thing -- endlessly rising exports to the United States. But since the Wall Street financial meltdown began in September, the U.S. market -- robust and apparently insatiable in its demand for Japanese consumer goods for so long -- has collapsed.

The growing global economic crisis, in fact, has hit Japan far harder than it has the United States or Western Europe. In the last quarter of 2008, Japan's gross domestic product shrank by a whopping 12.7 percent -- a far worse decline than in any other major industrialized nation. The Nikkei 225 average fell 1.4 percent on Monday alone: It has now plummeted 14 percent since the beginning of the year.

Nakagawa has tried to combat the crisis, albeit in conventional ways. Like Obama in the United States and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Britain, he is seeking to pump liquidity and demand back into the economy, even though this approach has not worked anywhere else. But at least Obama and Brown were able to get their stimulus packages passed by their respective parliaments. Aso and Nakagawa could not even manage that. Their $108 billion rescue package was blocked in the Japanese Parliament.

Aso was forced to replace Nakagawa with Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano. At age 70, Yosano is two years older than Aso and 15 years older than the young-looking but hapless and far from dynamic Nakagawa. He looks to be the chosen candidate of the "gray old men" in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to replace Aso, whose approval ratings are now crawling below 10 percent, according to a Nippon Television poll released last week. That makes Aso even more unpopular than Israel's long-derided and lame duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Yosano has shown no sign of any more dynamism or originality of thought in combating the crisis than either Aso or Nakagawa, and he is anything but a fresh face. His rise appears to be a last desperate expedient by the LDP "gray men" to stave off a sweeping electoral defeat that could only benefit Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party. Clinton is giving Ozawa a boost by meeting with him on her visit, even though she has infuriated Aso by doing so.

Ozawa therefore looks to be the real winner in Japanese politics from Clinton's visit, even though he is far more likely to take policy stands that the U.S. government won't like than the cautious, tradition-bound Aso and Yosano.

An element of bad luck, twisted fate, therefore hangs over Clinton's visit to Tokyo. She sought to show Washington's appreciation of Aso and to boost his standing, but instead he lost his finance minister and was forced to replace him with a bitter rival while she was in town. And the opposition figure she is reaching out to is likely to prove far more resistant to U.S. desires than Aso and his predecessors have been.

It remains to be seen if Clinton will do any better in Beijing.

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