Hurd on flying visit to Tokyo: Courtesy call to shore up sagging 'special relationship' with Britain

REMEMBER Japan, the country Margaret Thatcher lionised as embodying the economic future of the world? The British government does not. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who arrived in Japan yesterday, will have trouble even remembering the names of his Japanese hosts. In an age when Cabinet ministers commute regularly to Washington and European capitals, Britain's senior diplomat has not been in Tokyo for nearly three years.

It is not just the Foreign Office that ignores the world's second largest economy and one of the most dynamic investors in the United Kingdom: the last British prime minister to visit was Mrs Thatcher in September 1989. John Major has said he wants to make Britain a 'paradise' for Japanese investors, but has shown little interest in anything Japanese beyond the country's money.

Britain's much-touted 'special relationship' with Japan is looking decidedly thin. The two island nations with royal families, a parallel sense of decorum and fierce feelings of independence, have been called natural partners, but the relationship is not coming easily at the moment. The British Embassy in Tokyo is embarrassed by London's lack of interest in Japan but, faced with the power of the China lobby in the Foreign Office, it has little choice but to suffer in a state of bureaucratic oblivion.

Even Mr Hurd's visit is only semi- serious. It is built around a trip to Indonesia, where he is to see the temple of Borobodur near Jogjakarta, and South Korea, where his wife has been invited by a private company to launch a ship. Japan has been squeezed in between these two venues almost as an afterthought, and the Foreign Secretary will spend only one night in Tokyo.

This casual treatment of a country with a gross national product three times larger than Britain's contrasts sharply with the ideas expressed in an interview in London given by Mr Hurd to the Japanese news agency Kyodo, before he left for Asia. He called for Japanese involvement in a whole range of international issues. 'Japan is playing almost month by month an increasing role in international affairs,' he said, adding 'the world needs Japan.'

Japan itself is keen to get away from the stereotype of cheque-book diplomacy and play a more active role in world affairs. Its ultimate foreign policy goal is to win a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The most tangible step so far was the decision last year to send peace-keeping troops to Cambodia, the first overseas dispatch of Japanese military personnel since the Second World War.

But while many constraints to a more open Japanese role come from within the country's own political and bureaucratic system, it does not help that foreign countries refuse to take Tokyo more seriously.

Mr Hurd is to meet Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, today. Yesterday a planned meeting with the Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, was cancelled, and hours later it was announced that Mr Watanabe was resigning his post for medical reasons.

Mr Watanabe has been commuting to work from hospital for some time. He is widely believed to be suffering from cancer, although no official announcement has been made in a country where mention of the disease is taboo. Kabun Muto, 66, a former farm and trade minister, is to take over as foreign minister.

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