Rethink of relations

Print edition : March 12, 2010

The Futenma U.S. Marine base amid residential buildings, in Okinawa, a 2005 picture.-TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/FILES

After the ouster of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power last year, relations between Japan and the United States do not seem as cosy as they used to be. The new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept to power on the promise of reorienting the countrys domestic and foreign policy. On the campaign trail, the opposition focussed particularly on the continued presence of the U.S. military on Japanese territory and the continuance of unequal treaties dating to the Second World War.

The DPJ promised to end decades of passive behaviour in dealings with the U.S. Hatoyama, after taking over as Prime Minister, showed that he was serious about Japan following an Asia-oriented foreign policy. His government is giving special emphasis to a strong relationship with China, India and other Asian countries.

On January 19, the 50th anniversary of the Japan-U.S. security treaty was commemorated in Tokyo. Japan and the U.S. signed the military pact in 1951, and it was revised in 1960. The 1951 treaty had a clause that allowed the U.S. to intervene in case of large-scale internal riots and disturbance in Japan. The revised treaty removed the clause but retained many of the controversial secret clauses, including the sailing in of nuclear armed American navy ships into Japanese territorial waters despite the fact that Japans Constitution bans the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory. One of the clandestine clauses made Japan pay for the maintenance of U.S. bases.

On the occasion of the anniversary, Hatoyama stressed the importance of the security pact for peace and stability in the region even as hectic behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity went on to decide the fate of the U.S. Futenma air base in Okinawa. Indications are that the Hatoyama government is keen to end the U.S. military presence there.

The Obama administration has taken a tough stance on the issue, insisting that U.S. presence in Okinawa is crucial for the security of the East Asian region.

Okinawa is home to 75 per cent of the 53,000 U.S. troops based in Japan. The Obama administration signalled that it could backtrack on an earlier $26-billion deal involving the transfer of 6,000 U.S. troops from Okinawa to Guam if the Hatoyama administration decided to close the air base. The deal, agreed four years ago, also involved handing back to Japan valuable real estate in thickly populated Okinawa city.

In November last year, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned Japan that it would face serious consequences if the new government did not honour the commitments on the bases given by the former government. During his visit, Gates loudly lobbied for an extension of the military bases agreement. The Japanese media were openly critical of Gates, describing the Defence Secretary as a bully. But since then, both sides have adopted a more diplomatic stance.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the security treaty, a joint statement was issued by the U.S. Defence and State Secretaries and the Japanese Defence and Foreign Ministers. The statement endorsed ongoing efforts to maintain the deterrent capabilities in a changing strategic landscape, including appropriate stationing of U.S. forces, while reducing the impact of bases on local communities, including Okinawa, thereby strengthening security and ensuring the alliance remains the anchor of regional stability.

However, since then, popular sentiment in Japan seems to have shifted irrevocably against the U.S. military presence. A plan to relocate the Okinawa base on Japanese soil received a setback in the last week of January. The former LDP government had proposed four years ago that the base be shifted to the northern city of Nago, also on the island of Okinawa. But in the recent municipal elections in Nago, the candidate opposed to the relocation of the U.S. air base won a resounding victory. He has since said there was no question of the base being relocated to Nago.

Hatayoma has diplomatically indicated that the ideal thing for the U.S. to do is to shift the base out of Japan altogether. The DPJs key coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), insists that the U.S. base must be located outside Japanese territory. It has even threatened to withdraw from the government if the government does not support its position.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama speaks in Parliament on January 29. He has diplomatically indicated that the ideal thing for the U.S. to do is to shift the base out of Japan.-KOJI SASAHARA/AP

The recent revelations of secret security pacts with the U.S. have inflamed public opinion. The Japanese Foreign Minister has appointed a team of scholars to delve into the Foreign Ministrys archives to track down secret documents relating to security ties with the U.S.

The issue has become an emotive one after it became clear that the Japanese state used its enormous powers to punish for perjury a journalist who had, in 1971, exposed the secret military clauses in the leading Japanese newspaper The Mainichi Shimbun. The reporter, Takichi Nishiyama, now 79, was the first to reveal the existence of four secret pacts. In 1978, the Japanese Supreme Court held Nishiyama guilty of obtaining state secrets.

By 2000, the U.S. itself had started declassifying documents relating to the secret agreements. And four years ago, a senior Japanese diplomat who had testified against Nishiyama confessed that he had lied under oath. Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said his government was determined to find out the truth about the secret pacts. He said the move should not be construed as anti-American. He emphasised that it was extremely important for democracy that people be aware of the truth. Exposing the truth and rectifying past wrongs, he said, could strengthen the alliance with the U.S.

It is not only the bases issue that gives the U.S. reason to worry about Japans future course. Since Hatoyama became Prime Minister in late 2009, ties with China, painted as a traditional rival of Japan by the West and right-wing Japanese politicians, have been strengthened. Visits by high-level delegations from both countries have been taking place virtually every month. There is talk of Hatoyama planning a visit to Nanjing for the anniversary of the 1937 massacre of civilians under Japanese occupation. Previous Japanese governments tended to gloss over the incident. According to reports, if such a visit materialises, Chinese President Hu Jintao will reciprocate with a visit to Nagasaki, where he would pledge his countrys peaceful intentions.

However, not everybody in Hatoyamas Cabinet shares his vision of an Asia-centric policy. Defence Minster Toshimi Kitazawa is said to be in favour of maintaining the close security links with the U.S. He recently appointed Yukio Okamoto as an adviser in the Ministry. Okamoto, known for his pro-American views, was a key adviser to several Prime Ministers of LDP governments. He recently said China was not a friendly country in military matters and that the threat from North Korea should be taken seriously. Many Japanese still seem to favour retaining the nuclear umbrella the U.S. has provided for the last 60 years.

Demonstrators with balloons in the shape of the dugong, or sea cow, at a rally against the relocation of the U.S. air base, in Tokyo on January 30. Environmental groups are concerned that reclamation of land for the base will destroy Okinawas ocean habitat, home to endangered wildlife including dugongs.-KOJI SASAHARA/AP

But in the past four months, some of the decisions taken by the DPJ-led government have not been looked upon favourably in Washington. These include the withdrawal of Japans naval forces from the Indian Ocean, where they were deployed to provide non-combat support for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, Tokyo announced a $5-billion aid plan for Afghanistan. The new government has talked about plans for setting up an East Asian community. No role is being contemplated for the U.S. in this Asian version of the European Union.

It is obvious that there is a serious rethink under way in Japan on the rationale for continuing with the unequal relationship with the U.S. Americas military blunders in West Asia and Afghanistan, coupled with its economic decline, have no doubt forced this reappraisal in Japan and among other close allies of the U.S.

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