A strategic launch

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

Japan's launch of two spy satellites demonstrates its desire to free itself from the U.S. military hold and use its own resources to safeguard its territory.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore and Beijing

BY successfully launching a new "satellite monitoring system'', "pacifist'' Japan has conveyed an unusual strategic message at this time of unprecedented cross-currents in global politics. The timing of the launch of two "information-gathering satellites'' - an unconcealed euphemism for a spying platform in outer space - has certainly placed Japan, a strong ally of the United States, in the category of a nation in search of its own strategic autonomy.

March 28, the day Japan chose to signal its new self-reliance in security matters by placing the futuristic satellites in orbit, was probably decided upon in the context of the U.S.' current war in Iraq. Since satellite missions of the latest magnitude require sufficient `lead time' to plan and prepare the ground for, it stands to reason that Japan's latest space foray was not programmed as a political slap at the U.S. in the wake of the latter's universally unpopular war in Iraq.

However, the international community, especially countries such as China and the two Koreas in Japan's immediate neighbourhood, have not missed the empirical reality that Tokyo has had no hesitation at this juncture to go ahead and assert its independence in strategic action. On balance, though, the Junichiro Koizumi administration in Tokyo has not at all belittled, by its action, the enduring U.S.-Japan military alliance, which has brought the East Asian giant a huge dividend of peace and prosperity since the end of the Second World War over half a century ago. But overall, Tokyo's new "spy in the sky'' venture raises some truly unconventional questions about the possible direction Japan's strategic autonomy would take.

Two inter-related aspects further define, without diluting, this new political signal from Japan. First, the Koizumi government, which took great pains to portray the satellites before their lift-off as anything but spying devices, has not fought shy of celebrating their successful launch as a step designed to enhance Japan's sense of security. The second and more important dimension is that Tokyo has not reached the stage of seriously considering a critical issue that has been in the air for over a decade - Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara's vision of neo-nationalism as outlined in his 1989 work, The Japan that Can Say No (to America, of course).

The strategic road to any realistic discussion on this subject by official Japan has always been strewn with many imponderables and roadblocks. In a sense, the unfinished story of such unorthodox thinking in post-imperial Japan began soon after the book shook the strategic affairs community in the U.S. A general perception in the 1990s was that Akio Morita, a free "entrepreneur'' who was believed to have `collaborated' in some form or the other with a politico like Ishihara in moulding such a brave new vision for Japan, began to distance himself, as soon as possible, from the downside of such a vision as regards Tokyo's foreign policy with particular reference to the U.S. itself.

Before the two spy satellites "blasted off'' from the Tanegashima space centre, Hatsuhisa Takashima, Press Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in Tokyo on March 27 that the satellites were based on "a very advanced technology'' and that they were designed to monitor, in the best possible manner, "large-scale disasters such as earthquakes or eruptions of volcanoes'' in Japan's geo-strategic neighbourhood. The Press Secretary also disclosed that the system "involves some classified information'' and contained a "security'' dimension as well. However, the overall attempt was one of downplaying the strategic aspects.

Japan did, however, change its tune, though only slightly, after the actual launch. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda noted that the satellites, when they became fully operational, "will strengthen (the) information-gathering capabilities required to ensure the safety of Japan''. That the accent was on `ensuring', rather than `enhancing', the "safety of Japan'' shows Japan's new assertiveness towards strategic autonomy vis-a-vis U.S., which has, for over 50 years, protected and contained post-imperial Japan through a bilateral military alliance and the MacArthur-era Constitution, which introduced Tokyo to "pacifism'' on America's prescription.

While there is nothing to suggest that Japan has not capitalised on America's imposition after the Second World War, there is also an alternative view that is of considerable relevance to the present debate. Yoshida Shigeru, Japan's leader after the Second World War, consciously set his country on a course of economic nationalism and also chose to accept "a subordinate role in the U.S. security system'' by resisting America's "pressure'' to re-arm and join the struggle against communism in the Cold War era, which too ended by the beginning of the 1990s. The larger question, therefore, is how far Japan, steeped in such recent historical trends in its strategic existence as a U.S. appendage (whatever the calculations on both sides), will now seize the new moment of opportunity provided by the launch of the spy satellites and refashion itself.

A POINT widely noticed at this juncture is that Japan has consistently sought to reduce its overwhelming dependence on U.S. "intelligence'' inputs since 1998 when a ballistic missile test-fired by North Korea, an uncompromising neighbour as far as Japan is concerned, flew over Japanese territory. Japan's new satellites embody this political aspiration. The Koizumi administration has taken a small but significant step forward to achieving a degree of strategic autonomy (as regards the U.S.) by choosing the present moment, when North Korea's suspected programme of making and deploying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is being increasingly seen in East Asia in the overall context of the U.S. war in Iraq.

For a variety of reasons, U.S. President George W. Bush has not established either a "moral equivalence'' or a strategic parity between the current Iraq question concerning WMD and North Korea's nuclear weaponisation `overdrive'. Washington would prefer to seek a "diplomatic'' and "political'' formula to disarm the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) of its potential to make WMD and ballistic missiles.

This aspect of the U.S. disposition is further defined by a major difference between Washington and the Kim Jong Il regime in Pyongyang. North Korea insists on direct negotiations with the U.S. on a proposal for a mutual non-aggression pact in the context of America's description of the DPRK as an integral component of the global "axis of evil'' (the other two components are Iraq and Iran). For Bush, however, the issues at stake are not purely bilateral in scope. Washington views the DPRK as a direct threat to the interests of the U.S. and its allies in East Asia but only as an indirect threat to the American homeland itself at this stage.

Therefore, the U.S. has not bracketed North Korea with Iraq, which, with its Islamic roots (even if with some secular gilt edge), is seen by the Bush team as an actual or potential threat to the U.S. everywhere. It now insists on holding talks with the DPRK only in a multilateral framework that would involve China, Russia, South Korea and Japan too. The U.S. demand suits Japan, whose separate equation with the DPRK largely covers issues not always related to the legacies of the Korean War of the early 1950s.

The overall North Korean question - a certain strategic "defiance'' of the U.S. "hegemony'' despite the DPRK's immense economic problems - is related in many ways to the historical baggage of the Korean War. In these circumstances, North Korea is a strategically useful neighbour for China, as long as Japan's role in East Asia as a staunch U.S. ally remains either a "counterweight'' to Beijing or simply a major concern to several countries in the region as a whole. China has, for the present, kept all its options open so as to nudge the U.S. towards a peaceful resolution of the current deadlock posed by the U.S.' profiling of North Korea as a "proliferator''. Given Japan's skewed equation with the DPRK on a wide range of issues, China knows that the North Korean question has ramifications far beyond the U.S.' present preoccupations with East Asia.

In both cultural and strategic terms, the relevance of South Korea to the DPRK cannot be exaggerated. Japan has had little hesitation in fully backing the U.S.' war in Iraq as it hopes that the West Asian puzzle can perhaps be kept separate from the East Asian intricacies. However, South Korea has drawn a new connection between the U.S.' war in Iraq and the North Korean nuclear issue. South Korea's new President, Roh Moo Hyun, who has sought a political life outside the confines of the U.S.' strategic cocoon in East Asia, has however, decided, as on April 3, to send "non-comabat troops'', consisting of "construction engineers'' and medical personnel, to aid the U.S.' military command in the Iraq war. Roh's reasoning is that the U.S. might reciprocate any such help from South Korea by helping it resolve the North Korean nuclear issue "peacefully''.

China, which is no less determined not to slam the door on the U.S. at this stage, is weighing its strategic options too; it has sought to draw Washington into as much of a political engagement as is possible. That U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney is likely to visit Beijing is a case in point.

Given the geo-strategic shadows that the U.S. has cast on East Asia at this juncture, Japan's search for some strategic autonomy is not going to be easy. A classic question in this regard is whether Japan will seek to make the atom bomb at some point in the future and discard the U.S.' nuclear umbrella. In a recent interview to this correspondent, Japan's Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi had ruled out the possibility of Tokyo becoming a nuclear power.

One reason she cited, apart from the Japanese Constitution and "the special sentiment'' of the Japanese people regarding nuclearisation, was that "Japan's taking the option of possessing nuclear weapons would destabilise the (present) international situations''.

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