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Bush, Koizumi aim to cement strong bilateral ties

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) U S President George W Bush hopes to strengthen already close ties with Japan in meetings with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi today where Bush will thank his Pacific ally for his support in Iraq and discuss shared concerns about North Korea.

The visit is being billed as a ''sayonara summit'' with Koizumi preparing to step down in September.

A personal rapport is expected to be on display between the leaders, who first bonded during a game of catch at Camp David in 2001.

While Thursday's events include an arrival ceremony on the White House lawn, a press conference and a formal dinner, Bush will treat Koizumi, a big fan of Elvis, to a trip to Memphis to tour the rock'n'roll legend's mansion tomorrow.

''What better place to go,'' Bush said of Graceland as he told an evening fundraiser of his plans.

The wavy-haired Koizumi, 64, is seen in Japan as a maverick with keen political instincts. His affinity for baseball and cowboy movies have endeared him to Bush.

''There is no doubt that the Koizumi-Bush chemistry has been really important personally to the president, personally to Koizumi and for the strength of the U S-Japan alliance,'' said Michael Green, a Japan expert and former White House official.

But Green said he believed the bilateral relationship would remain solid well after Koizumi steps down and will be helped by the fact that both leading candidates to succeed Koizumi have served as top officials in his government.

Despite political risks at home, Koizumi sent troops to Iraq in Japan's most dangerous overseas deployment since World War Two, though it has begun pulling out its 550 troops from the southern Iraqi city of Samawa.

''Bush will go out of his way to praise Koizumi and his record of support in Iraq,'' said Claude Barfield, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. In general, he said, ''I don't think there's a big substantive agenda.'' The two leaders are in sync in their concerns about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Amid talk Pyongyang may be preparing to test a long-range missile, Barfield said the leaders could issue a joint warning to the North to refrain from doing so.

Another regional issue that could come up is the concern raised by China and South Korea over Koizumi's annual visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine.

The shrine is seen in Asia as a symbol of Japanese militarism because convicted war criminals are among those honored. But Bush has kept out of that issue for the most part, urging the countries to look past historic disputes.

REUTERS SY BST1044

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