An alliance reworked

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

China is the key factor behind the new nuances in the recent U.S.-Japan defence alliance, which delineates several measures to meet the "new and emerging threats" in the Asia-Pacific region.


WILL the latest defence accord between Japan and the United States pose a qualitatively new challenge to China? Viewed differently, is the updated Japan-U.S. military alliance so designed as to counter China's ascendance as a political power and a military force?

These are much more than mere topical posers that can be traced to the wide-ranging "precepts" and "essential steps" that the U.S. and Japan have now agreed upon. The basic thrust of the accord, reached in Washington on October 29, is the U.S.-Japan "force posture realignment" in the context of a "transformation" of their long-standing military alliance.

The fine print of the new accord, still a security panel's report that will be firmed up by March 2006, implicitly portrays China's ongoing "military modernisation" as the wake-up call that spurred Japan and the U.S. to action. In fact, it is a measure of stealth diplomacy, aimed at camouflaging the target country, that China is identified in this document only through a coded reference.

At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S. and Japan sound an alarm bell for China. Delineated are a number of military measures that the two allies have already initiated or will initiate in order to "pay attention to [the] modernisation of military capabilities in the [Asia-Pacific] region". Beijing, which has made no secret of its ongoing military-modernisation drive, is obviously the primary focus of such attention.

The U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, which consists of the highest political dignitaries dealing with defence and foreign affairs on both sides, has drawn up the latest document to meet the "new and emerging threats" to each of them and the Asia-Pacific region.

While the time-horizon is the future phase of the post-Cold War era, the present challenges are addressed, and the proposed superstructure of the alliance is founded on the incremental foundations laid in the past.

It is an old story that Japan, which conceded defeat in the Second World War after being nuclear-bombed twice by the U.S., made common cause with the American political establishment during the Cold War that followed. As the U.S. then sought to constrain Japan from re-emerging as a militant power, the Japanese leaders seized the cost-effective chance of securing protection under Washington's military wings. Paradoxically, but in tune with the "political logic" of the Cold War games, Japan even obtained shelter under the U.S.' nuclear umbrella. For Tokyo, this was an "equaliser" as regards Beijing.

In essence, the U.S.-Japan alliance during the Cold War was directed against the Soviet Union in the East Asian theatre. However, Japan insured its protection against China too. At a later stage of the Cold War, as the U.S. struck a "strategic deal" with China against the Soviet Union, Japan did find itself worrying whether its military dependence on the U.S. might turn into a castle in the air. However, as the Soviet Union remained America's chief target throughout the Cold War, Japan managed to stay on the U.S.' bandwagon. Even as Washington's tactical need for Beijing's help gradually diminished, Japan more or less regained its poise within the U.S. camp shortly before the end of the Cold War nearly a decade and a half ago.

Soon thereafter, as the U.S. went to war with Saddam Hussain's Iraq over the Kuwait issue in January 1991 shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tokyo found itself out of sync with Washington. Japan was accused of resorting to "chequebook diplomacy" and supporting the U.S.' efforts in Iraq monetarily but not militarily.

It did not impress the apologists for the U.S. worldwide that Japan's "pacifist Constitution", a "gift" from Washington after the Second World War, could not be wished away as the decisive factor. As a debate raged in Japan over the perceived need to update its Constitution (an issue not yet resolved fully), the security dimensions of Tokyo's alliance with Washington came under severe scrutiny.

Following the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Tokyo began, under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a more intensive review of the need to restore Japan to "normality" as a sovereign state with a military profile like any other comparable country. And today, Japan, despite its major economic problems of recent years, retains its status as the world's second largest economy. Indeed, the latest estimate by some economists is that Japan may be bouncing back.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as the U.S. swung into military action in Afghanistan, Japan enacted new laws in accordance with its strict parliamentary practices to deal with contingencies of direct or indirect security concern to the Japanese people. These measures form a small but significant part of the foundation of the new U.S.-Japan security accord.

No less important, these laws were put to use by Koizumi to extend offshore refuelling assistance, in the Indian Ocean area, to the U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan. More recently, suitable legislation was passed to enable Koizumi to send several hundred personnel of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to Iraq on a humanitarian mission in aid of the U.S.-led occupation forces. Much more than a mere political aside is the fact that Japan, in deference to its pacifist Constitution, continues to call its military wings by the collective term of SDF.

For Japan, the new security accord has been a logical step forward from the position of rendering humanitarian assistance to U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hailing their alliance as the enduring "anchor of regional stability" in East Asia and the West Pacific zone, the U.S. and Japan have identified several events and measures as the factors that led to the new security update. These include, among a few other factors, "bilateral cooperation in international activities such as the fight against terrorism; the Proliferation Security Initiative; [Japan's SDF-led] assistance to Iraq; [Japan's SDF-directed] disaster relief following the [2004] tsunami in the Indian Ocean [areas] and the [2005] earthquake in South Asia; Japan's 2004 National Defence Programme Guidelines; progress in ballistic missile defence cooperation; [and] Japan's legislation to deal with contingencies".

The ongoing "transformation and global-posture realignment of U.S. [military] forces" are identified as the overall framework for the latest security update. More important, "the SDF's planned transition to a new joint-operations posture", in association with the U.S., is cited as some form of an "open sesame" (or, a facilitator formula) for the new security update.

It is the intended joint operations posture that has caught the attention of Japan's neighbours, most notably China, which figures as the coded focus of the updated security calculus. Significantly, Japan's move in striking a joint military posture with the U.S. is seen in East Asia as tectonic shift away from Tokyo's post-imperial "pacifism".

There is nothing, however, in the new security update to suggest that Japan may give up its "nuclear pacifism". This mantra covers three aspects: no manufacture of nuclear weapons, no possession of such devices, and no deployment of weapons of mass destruction by Tokyo or any external power on Japanese territory.

Tokyo's sustainable access to the U.S. nuclear umbrella is guaranteed even now. As a result, American Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer has felt compelled to clarify that a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier, now proposed to be deployed at the Japanese port of Yokosuka by 2008, would not carry atomic weapons. The deployment of this new-generation warship, in the place of an existing conventionally powered U.S. aircraft carrier, has been planned in the face of genuine "pacifist" opposition from both the residents and the city administrators there.

This is not an isolated episode of popular opposition in Japan to several aspects of the U.S. military posture under the new deal. The planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station (Futenma facility) within the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa will take place in the teeth of stiff opposition from the people and political leaders there. Okinawa has hosted almost 75 per cent of all Japan-based U.S. military personnel and facilities for several decades now.

Okinawa's popular resistance to the U.S.' military presence is a well-chronicled saga in contemporary global politics. The latest plan about the U.S. air facility overrides the persistent demands of Okinawa residents that it be shifted out of their neighbourhood altogether.

Some advocates of the U.S.-Japan alliance make the point that the attitude of the people of Okinawa should not be overstretched to mean blanket opposition to the security arrangement itself. However, Okinawa is more an illustration of the popular indignation rather than the only people-level indictment of the U.S.' approach to security matters in the Asia-Pacific region, where Official Japan has remained Washington's steadfast ally.

At another strategic level, the open-ended and deployment-oriented cooperation between the U.S. and Japan over a futuristic ballistic missile defence system has attracted wide attention across East Asia, especially in China. This venture, as also the evolving policy of U.S.-Japan "inter-operability" in respect of the more traditional military postures, are beginning to be seen across East Asia in the emerging scenario of China as a frontline space-faring nation. While China has asserted that its space programme is entirely for a peaceful agenda of scientific endeavours, the U.S.-Japan military moves cannot be entirely unrelated to Beijing's new technological prowess.

Overarching all these practical and possible security calculations by the U.S. and Japan are the "common strategic objectives" that they had firmed up in February. Noteworthy in this category of a number of efforts by the U.S. and Japan are: (1) the search for a peaceful resolution of the issues relating to North Korea's nuclear weapons programme; (2) the encouragement of "Russia's constructive engagement" in the Asia-Pacific region; (3) the development of "a cooperative relationship with China"; and (4) the encouragement of moves towards "the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue".

Beijing has already denounced the perceived move by the U.S. and Japan to gain a strategic say over the resolution of the Taiwan question, which China reckons as a full-scope domestic matter. Beijing being a key factor behind the new nuances in the U.S.-Japan alliance, Koizumi's domestic status as a leader who can stand up to China is now as critical to East Asian stability as Washington's "power" and passion for "neo-McCarthyism".

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