WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will attempt to ease strained ties between Washington and its top Asian ally when they meet for the first time on Friday.
"I think there is a noticeable stress in the relationship," Randy Schriver, a senior State Department official in charge of East Asian relations during the first term of the Bush administration, told AFP.
Relations between the world's two richest nations have suffered for a variety of reasons.
Washington felt slighted when Japan suspended a critical mission on November 1 to supply fuel to US-led coalition forces in the Indian Ocean as part of "war on terror" operations in Afghanistan.
The United States has been pushing Japan, officially pacifist since the end of World War II, to take on a greater security role in Asia.
Japan, on the other hand, was disillusioned for being kept out of the loop as the United States courted China in a desperate bid to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive.
"Japan, of course, is the most profoundly disillusioned by America's move to enlist China to co-manage Asia with us," said John Tkacik, a China expert formerly with the State Department.
"The cornerstone of our Asia policy -- the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty -- is being pried loose by China," he said.
Tkacik cited an example in June, when the very morning US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill was to leave Tokyo for what turned out to be a surprise visit to North Korea, he first stopped by to brief his Japanese counterpart, Kenichiro Sasae.
"But not once did he say, 'Oh, by the way, I will be in Pyongyang in a few hours,'" Tkacik said.
There was also a sense of suspicion in Japan that Washington's decision not to sell it the F-22 aircraft, which boasts stealth capabilities far superior to those of any other aircraft available, was out of mistrust.
But as Bush and Fukuda prepare to grapple with some of the key issues, experts remain confident that tensions in the US-Japan alliance can be eased if the two sides considered the broader interests of their half century ties.
"I think by and large, the relationship is very sound," said Richard Bush, head of Asian studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"These are differences among friends and I think they can be managed. The important thing is we maintain good communication with each other and so minimize the doubts that each might have about each other," he said.
Some in Washington for example expect Fukuda's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to override any legislative attempts by the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) led by Ichiro Ozawa to thwart a resumption of the six-year naval mission in Afghanistan.
The LDP controls parliament's lower house and, if it wants, can override any veto by the upper house controlled by the DPJ.
"What some people don't realize is that Mr Fukuda's LDP does have the power to push through reauthorization. Some people are a little bit cynical -- they question why Mr Ozawa is doing this if the LDP has the power to do this anyway," analyst Bush said.
He also feels there could be "some convergence" between the United States and Japan on North Korea, whose past abductions of Japanese nationals remain an emotionally charged issue in Japan.
"We had a similar conundrum with our POWs (prisoners of war) and MIAs (missing in action) from Vietnam. It took us quite a while to figure out a workable approach," he said.
Due to the abductee issue, Japan has refused to provide energy aid to North Korea as part of incentives under a six-party deal brokered by China for Pyongyang to disband its nuclear weapons network.
The White House said President Bush "looks forward to a productive exchange on ways to further enhance our strong partnership," ahead of the talks with Fukuda, who is making his first official overseas trip since taking office after his predecessor Shinzo Abe's abrupt resignation in September.
Fukuda told the Washington Post newspaper that his first foreign trip as prime minister was intended to affirm that "many Japanese, not just myself, think the US-Japan relations are by far the most important and most valuable" component of Japan foreign policy.
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