Bush to talk trade in Japan

TOKYO (AP) – The protests are expected to be small, and the visit will be brief, but President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will have a lot on their plates when they meet Wednesday.

One of those things might be beef. But it probably won’t be American.

While Bush is unlikely to convince Japan to immediately lift its ban on U.S. beef imports, he and Koizumi will at least find common ground on the U.S.-Japan alliance, as the two countries have recently announced huge strides toward a closer security partnership.

Bush’s overnight visit, part of an eight-day swing through Asia to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in South Korea, will be his first to Japan since October 2003.

Japanese officials acknowledge that beef will likely be on the agenda -and possibly the menu, since the two leaders will be sitting down for lunch.

Japan banned U.S. beef in December 2003 after the first case of mad cow disease was reported in the United States. Japan had previously been the largest overseas market for American beef, buying more than $1 billion worth in 2003.

American ranchers and senators have pushed for a resumption of imports, even threatening tariffs if the ban continues, but finicky Japanese consumers remain deeply wary, with recent polls showing nearly 70 percent support the ban. Eating beef from cattle infected with mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, can cause a fatal brain disorder in humans.

Still, Tokyo is moving closer to easing the ban.

This month, Japan’s Food Safety Commission approved a report that found the risk of infection from American beef is extremely low if proper precautions are taken, and little different from eating Japanese beef.

The trade talks are likely to be much lower key than in years past. With Japan’s economy still sputtering out of a prolonged slowdown, China _ seen as the key stop on the Bush itinerary _ has replaced Japan as Washington’s biggest trade concern.

The U.S. trade deficit with China is running at an annual rate approaching $200 billion, far above last year’s record deficit of $162 billion, the highest imbalance ever recorded with a single country.

In China, Bush is expected to push for a revaluation of the Chinese currency, efforts to reduce the trade imbalance and stepped up measures to thwart the piracy of American movies and computer programs.

All the focus on China has many in Japan feeling a bit left out.

“Japan is casting hardly a shadow as the region moves ahead with its various strategies,” the influential Asahi newspaper said in an editorial Monday.

Security, meanwhile, has replaced trade as the major diplomatic initiative between Tokyo and Washington.

After more than a year of often bumpy talks, the United States and Japan recently agreed to the most sweeping changes in the deployments of U.S. troops here in recent memory, a plan that includes the withdrawal of about 7,000 of the 18,000 Marines on the crowded island of Okinawa.

Under the agreement, Japan will do more to deal with such threats as ballistic missiles and commando attacks.

The talks reflect Washington’s desire to save money by getting Tokyo to assume more regional security responsibility. Tokyo is also concerned about friction between local communities and the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops stationed here.

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