Page 1 of 2 US frets over Tokyo drift
By Peter J Brown
As Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama speaks of the need for change, and
signals his desire to forge a more robust partnership with China to create a
viable East Asian "community", he must remain in close contact with fellow
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) members, other members of his new coalition
government and Japan's military - known as the Self-Defense Forces (JSDF).
The United States will also need to be informed of exactly where things stand
as Hatoyama tries to find a way "to show that he changed course on the alliance
- creating more 'independence' for Japan without actually doing any damage to
the security relationship that guarantees Japan's survival in a dangerous
neighborhood", according to Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan Chair at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
"So, we are in for another few months - if not years - of uncertainty. In the
end, public opinion and the reality of the strategic situation in Asia suggest
the US-Japan alliance will stay
strong and may even get stronger, but now there is a certain amount of drift
and uncertainty that is not welcome in Washington," said Green.
"While Hatoyama is not willing to change Japan's relationship with the US, the
US has begun to question the posture of the Hatoyama government," said Kazuto
Suzuki, an associate professor of International Political Economy at Hokkaido
University's School of Public Policy. "Hatoyama is not fully aware of the
change in the mood in the US, particularly at the Pentagon."
What happens at sea in particular - both in the Pacific and to a lesser extent
in the Indian Ocean - is of the utmost importance to the Japan-US alliance. The
US is not about to alter its military cooperation and technology-sharing
arrangement with Japan based on a few of Hatoyama's more seemingly altruistic
pronouncements about the need for a shift in direction in Japan's foreign
"Short of a major rupture in the alliance, such a linkage does not exist yet
for the sea-based Ballistic Missile Defense [BMD] system," said associate
professor Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College's Strategy and Policy
Department. "Both need each other for the sea-based component of missile
defense as it is currently configured to work. The US needs the forward bases
in Japan for its Aegis destroyers and the radar sites based on Japan to detect,
track, and intercept missiles launched from the region. Japan needs the
anti-missile umbrella and the technologies for an independent capability
furnished by the US."
The JSDF are certainly aware of the not-so-subtle shift in attitude in the US.
Yet at the same time, the JSDF has been flexible and pragmatic when it comes to
its dealings with China. Why not? This appears to be a very logical and sound
approach at a time when General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China's Central
Military Commission, has been meeting in the Pentagon with US Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates, and when other Chinese generals have been welcomed aboard
the US aircraft carrier George Washington as it recently lay at anchor
in Hong Kong harbor for the first time.
"The regional community, or East Asian Community, issue is strictly limited to
the economic and cultural domain at this moment. The [JSDF] do not consider
that this concept will evolve into military cooperation," said Suzuki, who
added that the JSDF are on good terms with the Chinese military on a bilateral
basis. "The contacts of senior officers, and a constant exchange of information
are facilitating this bilateral relationship."
The JSDF are aware of the boundaries which inhibit Japan from going too far
down this road for a number of reasons, including the fact that numerous joint
projects are now underway with the US. Many are very sensitive involving
anti-missile, satellite and anti-submarine technology.
For example, one joint US-Japan project involves the SM-3 block 2A interceptor
missile, along with a follow-on known as the SM-3 Block 2B. These missiles are
not only key components in the BMD system that both Japan and the US embrace,
but also now vital to Europe's BMD plans.
In addition, Japan is still seeking access to very sophisticated US military
equipment such as the F-22 advanced fighter aircraft, although many observers
see this as a quest that has run almost entirely out of steam.
"The JSDF are generally optimistic about a more dynamic political leadership
emerging from the DPJ ranks. Moreover, the uniformed military has better
relations with the DPJ than many of the bureaucracies more closely associated
with the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] such as the Foreign Ministry or the
Health Ministry," said Green.
This does not mean that the JSDF support everything that Hatoyama and the DPJ
have said and done during the past few months.
"[The JSDF appear to be concerned by] the DPJ's rather cavalier rhetoric about
China and the US. [Another concern] is the downward pressure on the defense
budget by the DPJ which is likely to emphasize things that get votes at home,"
said Green. "Finally, the senior officers were unhappy that Japanese Defense
Minister Toshimi Kitazawa criticized their performance in the Indian Ocean,
believing that criticism of the LDP's policies should not lead to criticism of
the JSDF for doing their duty."
Hatoyama informed the Diet (parliament) in early November that Japan would
terminate its refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in mid-January. On the very
next day, Kitazawa said there was a very strong possibility that Japan would
commence another refueling mission in early 2010 in support of the
multi-national naval force assigned to anti-piracy duties off the coast of
While US President Barack Obama makes his first official trip to Asia this
month, it seems unlikely that some sort of sweeping declaration about joint
US-Japan defense issues will be made during his visit to Japan.
According to Yoshihara, "North Korean missile tests and China's impressive
missile modernization program showcased during the National Day celebrations on
October 1 underscore the missile danger to Japan and the US."
"This is a shared threat perception that goes back more than a decade with the
DPRK's [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea] Taepodong
missile launch in July 1998. As a result, there is consensus within the
trans-Pacific strategic community that deterrence-by-denial through missile
defense is one important element for providing security," said Yoshihara.
That said, any BMD cooperation involving Japan and the US cuts both ways
"On the one hand, a genuine joint BMD architecture would mean unprecedented
integration and information sharing. This could be interpreted as putting Japan
on a more equal footing with the US, a key foreign policy item of the DPJ's
campaign manifesto," said Yoshihara. "On the other hand, Tokyo could become
even more reliant on cutting-edge US capabilities for its defense, thus lending
credence to those who fear overdependence on the United States."
For a joint BMD system to work properly, Japan needs to resolve clearly the
issue of collective self-defense, "a right that Tokyo has denied to itself",
according to Yoshihara. In fact, BMD is fast becoming a key barometer of the
alliance's long-term vitality at the tactical, operational and strategic
"Suppose North Korea fires a missile at the US. Would Japanese tracking or
interception of the missile constitute collective self defense? What if Japan
failed to intercept the missile because Tokyo feared violating the ban on
collective self defense? What if, as a consequence, Washington accuses Tokyo of
dereliction of duty as a treaty ally? So, BMD cooperation is not problem - free
for Japan," said Yoshihara.