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A Thank-You Stop in Tokyo

President Bush expresses gratitude for Japan's support and $1.5-billion pledge for Iraqi reconstruction.

October 18, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — President Bush paid a quick visit to Japan on Friday to personally thank Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for contributing to the U.S.-led effort to rebuild Iraq.

The visit was an extended layover for Bush, who arrived today in the Philippines for a one-day state visit before flying to Bangkok, the Thai capital, for the annual summit of Asian-Pacific leaders that begins Monday.

The president and first lady arrived late in the afternoon and dined on Japanese beefsteak with Koizumi in the evening at Akasaka Geihinkan, the state guest house.

"He's a good friend, a very strong leader," Bush said as the two parted a few hours later, relaxed and wearing sport coats without ties. "The relationship between Japan and the United States is very good .... And the meal was great."

The decision to serve Bush beef at dinner was a return gesture for the hamburgers Bush served Koizumi during a visit to his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Responding to a question in Japanese, apparently about how the evening had gone, Koizumi said in English: "Very frank ... very interesting ... fantastic."

Japanese officials welcomed the trip despite its whistle-stop duration. Some are still smarting over former President Clinton's decision to bypass Japan en route to a nine-day visit to China in 1998.

"It's seen as a good sign that Bush has a tight schedule, but he's still made a point of stopping in Japan and that it's his first stop," said Setsuo Takeda, a professor of international politics.

The visit came at a time when Bush felt buoyed after winning a unanimous vote in the United Nations Security Council for his Iraqi reconstruction resolution.

Japan announced on the eve of Bush's visit that it would donate $1.5 billion to Iraqi reconstruction -- the first major contribution in advance of next week's conference in Madrid of potential donors to Iraq.

"This will not only show the commitment of the Japanese, but it also serves as a reminder to the rest of the world that there are important players that are willing to step up to the plate," a senior U.S. administration official said after the meeting.

The White House denies that Bush's tour of Asia is designed as an extended fundraising trip for Iraq. However, a second senior Bush administration official acknowledged that the president has been making many phone calls to other world leaders in recent days seeking additional assistance for Iraq.

"We're doing quite a lot of pressing of everybody to be generous," the official said.

In addition to the $1.5-billion grant announced this week, Japan is considering offering $3.5 billion in loan assistance that may be negotiated and announced in Madrid. That would bring Japanese assistance to $5 billion, or about 10% of what the World Bank has estimated is needed to rebuild the country.

As for troops, Japan intends to contribute several hundred for noncombat roles but will not make a decision until after national elections Nov. 9. However, if Koizumi wins reelection, Japanese news reports suggest that the government plans an initial deployment of about 150 troops in December, and 550 more next year. Both detachments would serve in the more peaceful southern regions of Iraq.

The issue of aid to Iraq has been controversial in Japan, and about 1,000 protesters -- some wearing Bush face masks -- rallied outside the American Embassy against Japanese involvement.

"The amount of Japan's contribution to the Iraq reconstruction seems a lot to us," said Takako Iida, 54, a Tokyo homemaker, who complained that public services are already underfunded. "Even though the U.S. denies it, we can't help thinking that Japan is viewed as an ATM .... Nor do we know how much more we'll be asked to contribute."

Because Japan's Constitution permits military action only in self-defense, many Japanese are not comfortable committing troops to international operations. As a result, the country has been seen primarily as a financier of such operations, especially after paying $13 billion to support the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"There is no clear border in Iraq where the battlefield starts and ends, so Japan should not send troops there," said Kiyotsugu Shitara, secretary-general of Japan's Managers Union, which represents white-collar workers. "Regarding the financial aid to Iraq, I can understand if the U.N. asked for it. But I am against paying because the U.S. demands it, just like we saw during the Gulf War."

The two countries are currently at odds over currency policies, which the United States blames for a weak dollar and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Bush discussed the problem with Koizumi, but the prime minister made no commitments to changing Japanese policy.

Koizumi "welcomes the president's commitment to a strong dollar, and he ... agrees with the formulation about having the market determine exchange rates," the first senior Bush administration official said. However, "he did caution that rapid fluctuations in exchange rates could be dangerous and upsetting to the markets."

In Manila today, Bush will address the Philippine Congress, becoming the first U.S. president to do so since Dwight D. Eisenhower. After a state dinner at Malacanang Palace, the Bushes will depart for Bangkok.

Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing and Hisako Ueno in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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