Saturday, January 2, 2010

U.S. Military Relations With Japan Will Remain Tricky

Defense News


U.S. Military Relations With Japan Will Remain Tricky


TAIPEI — The presence of U.S. military forces on Okinawa and the home island of Japan will continue to strain Japanese-U.S. relations in 2010, especially since the left-of­center Democratic Party’s (DPJ’s) electoral victory.

U.S. strategic policymakers and planners appear to have been ill-prepared for the unseating in August of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been Japan’s dominant party since 1955.

Under the LDP, the military had enjoyed an unmatched 10-year rise in political and strategic influence. The LDP raised the status of the military from an agency to a ministry. The military built new Aegis-equipped destroyers and a new helicopter destroyer modeled on an aircraft carrier, and upgraded its ballistic missile defense program with new Patriot PAC-3 air defense systems. There were even calls for the United States to sell Japan the new F-22 Raptor fighter.

However, during the recent political cam­paign, the DPJ called for the ejection of U.S. forces and the canceling of the 1960 U.S.­Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It also called for drastic cuts in defense spending and the end of Japanese refueling missions in the Indian Ocean in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

There were hopes the DPJ would tone down the rhet

oric after the election, but just prior to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ visit in October, new Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa raised the specter of threats to remove U.S. military forces from Okinawa and called for renegotiation of the SOFA.

Toshimi Kitazawa

The key complaint is the new location of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station on Okinawa. In 2006, the United States and Japan finalized an agreement to move the base to the Marines’ Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa at Henoko. Now the new government in Tokyo wants to cancel the agreement.

The Gates visit appears to have calmed Japanese complaints for the time being, but the issue will continue to dog U.S.-Japan relations under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government and remains central to the DPJ’s overall position on U.S. basing, said Christopher Hughes, a specialist on Japanese defense issues.

“Prime Minister Hatoyama is very unlike­ly to make a decision on the relocation of Futenma before early 2010 as he is waiting for mayoral elections at Henoko,” he said. “The U.S. and Japan are also far apart on finding a new site; and, indeed, the U.S. wants to push the existing Henoko plan.” Hughes, author of the new book “Japan’s Remilitarisation,” said the issue “will rumble on.”

The Futenma base likely will remain at its present location, continuing to aggravate relations, he said, with the worst-case scenario being closure of the air station.

Futenma is not the only problem for U.S.­Japan military relations. During President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Japan, the United States agreed to set up a joint committee to study a new level of alliance relations for 2010 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the SOFA. Such a study could cause additional friction, said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security, Tokyo.

“The two governments are likely to have difficult days ahead in coming to a satisfactory agreement” on Futenma, he said. “The DPJ government will also press for a revision of SOFA, with the support of its coalition partners, Democratic Socialists. On the whole, the Japan-U.S. strategic relations will continue, but with limited enthusiasm.”

Despite fears the DPJ is attempting to subvert the strategic relationship with the United States, Hughes said the party “does actually have a strategic vision toward the U.S.­Japan alliance that is attempting to be quite different from that of the LDP.

“Essentially, the DPJ is saying that it no longer wants Japan to be a simple follower of the U.S., as it perceived Japan as being under the LDP, and instead wants to assert greater autonomy,” he said.

This will be good for U.S.-Japanese relations in the long run as it will create a more “equal partnership and oblige Japan to be less dependent on the U.S.,” Hughes said.