WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) US President George W Bush and new Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will try today to smooth over relations that are looking rockier than usual between Washington and its closest Asian ally.
Bush hosts Fukuda in his first White House visit since taking office, amid questions about Japan's contribution to the US-led fight in Afghanistan and Japanese concerns over Washington's handling of the North Korea nuclear issue.
The talks are complicated by the revolving door of Japanese politics that has Bush dealing with the third prime minister in the past year and a half and has led to a parliamentary stalemate all but paralyzing Fukuda's government.
Fukuda, 71, came to office in September after the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, with whom Bush had just started to forge a personal bond.
But the White House was quick to dismiss the notion that Bush was worried about Fukuda wavering on Japan's foreign policy commitments.
''He likes to refer often to the close relationship the United States enjoys with Japan. He sees no reason to think that would be any different after Friday's meeting,'' Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
High on the agenda will be Fukuda's explanation of his efforts to win parliamentary approval for restarting Japan's naval mission in support of US-led military operations in Afghanistan.
Legislation authorizing Japanese vessels to refuel American and other countries' ships in the Indian Ocean expired on November 1, and to the dismay of US policy-makers Japan's opposition has so far blocked its renewal.
ABDUCTEES For his part, Fukuda is expected to raise Japanese opposition to the possible removal of North Korea from the US list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, a potential reward if Pyongyang disables its nuclear facilities as promised.
While the two allies have worked together to press Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, Japan wants Washington to wait until North Korea first comes clean about its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, a hot-button issue for Japanese voters.
''The issue regarding the abductees is something that the president thinks a lot about, and he has talked to every Japanese leader that has been in office since he's been here,'' Perino said.
Fukuda said he would work with Bush to bolster ties with the United States, considered the foundation of Japanese foreign policy.
''Unless we have solid Japan-U.S. relations, we can't fix our diplomatic stance on Asia,'' Fukuda told reporters before leaving for Washington.
But analysts say Bush and Fukuda are unlikely to make much progress on the main problems bedeviling the alliance.
The Bush administration has pressed Japan to play a larger role in global security, but the Japanese military has been constrained by the country's post-World War Two pacifist constitution.
Washington also wants Tokyo to lift restrictions on imports of US beef.
Fukuda's visit will be low-key compared with those of his immediate predecessors -- no Camp David talks like those held with Abe in April or tours of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion like Bush gave to Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, in June 2006.
Bush has met Fukuda once before and only briefly -- in Japan in 2005 while visiting Koizumi, with whom the president forged a close friendship. Fukuda was then Koizumi's chief Cabinet secretary.
REUTERS SG BD1150