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Japan struggles under shadow of China's vigorous diplomacy

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso.
by Staff Writers
Lima (AFP) Nov 24, 2008
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso on Monday saw progress in talks with key countries at a summit here, but he struggled to maintain Tokyo's presence on the international stage as China flexes its diplomatic muscle.

Aso wound up his visit Sunday to Peru for an annual summit of Asia-Pacific leaders led by outgoing US President George W. Bush, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The outspoken conservative, who took office in September, stressed a role by the world's second largest economy in tackling the global financial crisis and striking a World Trade Organization deal.

Aso briefed his Asia-Pacific partners about the plan he unveiled at a global summit in Washington last week to lend 100 billion dollars to the International Monetary Fund and create a new fund at the World Bank which would help throw financial lifelines to crisis-hit states.

"Almost all of our proposals were taken in the leaders' declaration," Aso proudly told a news conference. "Japan will fully implement its own initiative to bring the economy back on the right track."

Aso drew Bush's promise to ask his successor Barack Obama to take up one of Japan's key concerns -- finding out more about the fate of its nationals abducted by North Korea.

He also agreed with Medvedev to assign officials to come up with concrete ways to resolve a six-decade territorial dispute over four islands.

Japan's presence, however, was still clouded by an upbeat China, which sensed an opportunity to win a bigger share of Latin America's natural resources, analysts say.

Hu made landmark visits to Costa Rica and Cuba while striking a free trade deal with Peru. He also met here with a senior Taiwan envoy in the highest-level meeting overseas between the rivals.

Japanese officials were left fending off questions from local reporters on why Tokyo only agreed to an investment accord with Peru and not a full free trade deal.

Aso is also beleaguered by domestic problems, preparing to return to Tokyo to battle an opposition stalling legislation in parliament and pushing for snap elections.

"China is picking up momentum in terms of diplomacy," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of international politics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

"On the other hand, Japan has been stalled. Japan may not be able to return to a competitive position in the race for Asian supremacy."

Tokyo has fears of falling behind Beijng, which has built Asia's largest military, with some analysts warning China's gross domestic products would surpass Japan's in 15 years.

While Japan and China have been repairing relations since 2006 after a long freeze caused in part by friction of wartime memories, their confrontation often surfaces when the two Asian giants are vying for leadership.

During talks with Hu, Aso asked China to follow Japan's commitment to raise funds to the IMF, but the Chinese leader put aside the request by only affirming his cooperation to fight the financial crisis.

For Aso, the flurry of diplomatic events was seen as a key test of whether he can boost his support at home as the nation prepares for general elections by September next year.

Aso, who took office in September, has already seen his government's approval rating slip below 30 percent after a series of gaffes by himself and his cabinet.

Aso's Liberal Democratic Party has been in power for all but 10 months since 1955 but has gone through four prime ministers in the past two years amid a string of scandals, a troubled economy and the deadlock in parliament.

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