Rough Waters Ahead for U.S.-Japan Relations
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — As Japan and the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security on Jan. 19, fears remained that the strategic relationship that helped define the Cold War era in the Asia-Pacific region could be coming to an end.
The tipping point came during a dramatic nationwide election in mid-2009, when the left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseated the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The DPJ has a dramatically more “benign threat assessment of Asian and global security challenges” than does the United States and previous Japanese administrations, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now with the Heritage Foundation think tank. “Altering DPJ security thinking will be constrained, however, by Japanese political factors. As a result, U.S. policymakers foresee rough waters ahead for the alliance.”
Christopher Hughes, author of the recent book “Japan’s Remilitarisation,” agrees that in the “longer term, 10 years plus or so, it is hard to say where the alliance is heading.”
“It would be good to see some consolidation of the alliance rather than grandiose global plans for cooperation militarily, which are probably unworkable as they simply do not fit the DPJ’s conception of what the security treaty is for,” Hughes said.
Part of the problem is that the DPJ entered power with little or no experience in foreign policy or defense issues. The LDP had been the dominant power since 1955 and shared little in the way of partnership or wisdom with the DPJ on strategic decisions, according to Klingner.
“DPJ security perceptions are due to ideology as well as inexperience resulting from not formulating foreign policy or even receiving security briefings when it was the opposition party,” Klingner said. “The former is unlikely to be changed, but the latter can be and offers opportunities for security experts to improve DPJ strategic thinking.”
An example is the recent aboutface by Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada’s proposal to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Kadena Air Base in December.
Despite a 2006 agreement between Tokyo and Washington on the relocation of Futenma, the DPJ began challenging the decision during the campaign and elevated complaints when it entered power.
To make matters worse, a critical mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa, on Jan. 24 has gone to Susumu Inamine, who opposes the Futenma Replacement Facility. The new mayor has little political power to interfere with the facility, but his victory over base supporter Yoshikazu Shimabukuro will further pressure the DPJ to push for Futenma’s removal from Okinawa.
The DPJ campaigned on a promise to redefine the strategic relationship with the United States. Some DPJ officials made even bolder statements, calling for a revamping of the Status of Forces Agreement and the expulsion of all U.S. bases from Japan.
The issue will continue to be a “mini-crisis” between Japan and the United States, but Hughes said the situation can be contained and managed.
“We are already seeing all sides calming down a bit,” Hughes said. “The Japanese side is showing some pragmatism, if not abandoning its position, and the U.S. is beginning to realize that it cannot strong-arm Japan on this issue. So I think both sides will just have to sit down and slog out some kind of new agreement.”
“Regardless of how the Futenma issue is resolved, there will be residual hard feelings and mistrust in both capitals,” Klingner said.
No matter the final agreement, there is still room for the United States to help improve Japan’s military. Japan’s ballistic missile defense program remains an important factor as North Korea continues saberrattling, especially with projections Pyongyang will conduct its third nuclear test later this year. Japan remains interested in a new fighter to replace aging F-4J Phantoms.
However, Japan does appear ready to redefine its international role with an emphasis on more nonmilitary alliances and cooperation on the environment, food security, humanitarian aid and epidemics.
“I think the DPJ wants to cooperate regionally with the U.S., but genuinely wants to carve out some more security autonomy globally by developing more peacekeeping/U.N. type activities,” Hughes said.