People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 13

March 28, 2010

Japan Rethinks Strategic Relationship with the US

 

Yohannan Chemarapally

 

 

US-Japan ties don’t seem as cosy as they were in the past with the ouster of the long ruling Liberal Democratic Party from power last year. The new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had swept to power on the promise of re-orienting the country’s domestic and foreign policy. On the campaign trail, the opposition had particularly focussed on the continued presence of the US military presence on Japanese territory and the continuance of unequal treaties dating from world war two.

The DPJ had promised to end decades of “passive” behaviour in dealings with the United States. Hatoyama, after taking over as prime minister has shown by actions that he is serious about wanting Japan to follow an Asian oriented foreign policy. The new government is giving special emphasis on a strong relationship with China, India and other Asian countries.

On January 19, the 50th anniversary of the Japanese-US security treaty was commemorated in Tokyo. The original military pact was signed by Japan and the US in 1951 but was revised in 1960. The 1951 treaty had a clause which allowed the US to intervene in case of “large scale internal riots and disturbance in Japan”. The revised treaty had removed the insulting clause but in the process had also retained many of the controversial “secret clauses”, including the sailing in of nuclear armed American Navy ships into Japanese territorial waters, though the Japanese constitution banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory. Another of the clandestine clauses made Japan pay for the maintenance of the US bases.

Though the Japanese prime minister stressed the importance of the security pact for peace and stability in the region on the occasion, there were hectic behind the scenes diplomatic activity going on to decide the fate of the important US military Futenma air base in Okinawa. Indications are that the Hatoyama government is keen to end the American military presence there. The Obama administration has so far taken a tough stance on the issue, insisting that the American presence in Okinawa is crucial for the security of the East Asian region. Okinawa is home to 75 per cent of the 53,000 American troops based in Japan. The Obama administration has signalled that it could backtrack on an earlier $26 billion deal involving the transfer of 6000 US troops from Okinawa to Guam if the Hatoyama administration decided to close the air base. The deal agreed four years ago also involved the handing over of valuable real estate in thickly populated Okinawa city back to Japan.

In November last year, the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates had 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 had loudly lobbied for an extension of the military bases agreement. The Japanese media was openly critical of Gates, describing the defence secretary as a “bully”. But both sides have adopted a more diplomatic stance since then. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan security treaty, a joint statement was issued by the US defence and state secretaries along with the Japanese defence and foreign ministers, Toshimi Kitazawa and Katsuya Okada. The statement “endorsed ongoing efforts to maintain the deterrent capabilities in a changing strategic landscape, including appropriate stationing of US 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 the joint statement was issued, the popular sentiment in Japan seems to be shifting irrevocably against the American military presence. The plans for relocating the Okinawa base on Japanese soil received a further setback in the last week of January. The former LDP government had made a proposal four years ago that the base be shifted to a northern city of Nago, also on the island of Okinawa. But in recent municipal elections in Nago, the candidate opposed to the relocation of the US air base from Okinawa city won a resounding victory. He has since said that there was no question of the base being relocated in Nago. Hatayoma has been saying for some time that the base should be shifted out of Yokohama island altogether. He has also diplomatically indicated that the ideal thing for the US to do would be to shift the base out of Japan altogether. The DPJ’s key coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has insisted that the American base in Okinawa be located outside Japanese territory. The SDP has even threatened to quit the government if the government does not support its position.

The recent revelations of secret security pacts with the US that were kept away from the public eye by previous Japanese governments, have further inflamed public opinion. The Japanese foreign minister has appointed a team of scholars to delve into the foreign ministry’s archives to track down more secret documents relating to security ties with the US. The issue has become an emotive one after it became clear that the Japanese state had used its enormous powers to perjure a journalist who had first exposed the secret military clauses in the leading Japanese newspaper, the Mainichi Shimbun, way back in 1971. The reporter, Takichi Nishiyama, now 79 years old, was the first to reveal the existence of four secret pacts. For his pains, Nishiyama was found guilty by the Japanese Supreme Court in 1978 of obtaining state secrets.

By 2000, the US 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. The Japanese foreign minister, Katsuya Okada, said that his government is determined to find out the truth about the secret pacts with the US. He said that the move should not be construed as anti-American. He emphasised that it was “extremely important” for democracy that people should be aware of the truth.    

It is not only the “bases issue” that gives Washington reasons to worry about Japan’s future course. Since Hatoyama became prime minister in late 2009, ties with China, painted as a traditional rival of Tokyo by the West and right wing Japanese politicians, have been further strengthened. High level exchange of visits by delegations from both the countries, have been taking place virtually every month. There is talk of Prime Minister Hatoyama planning a visit to Nanjing for the anniversary of 1937 massacre of civilians under Japanese occupation. Previous Japanese governments tended to gloss over the incident. According to reports, if such a visit materialises, the Chinese President Hu Jintao would then reciprocate with a visit to Nagasaki where he would pledge his country’s peaceful intentions.

Not everybody in Hatoyama’s cabinet shares his vision for an Asia-centric policy. The Defence Minster, Toshimi Kitazawa, is said to be in favour of maintaining the close security links with the US. He has recently appointed Yukio Okamoto as an adviser in the ministry. Okamoto, known for his pro American views, was earlier a key adviser to several prime ministers of previous LDP governments. But more revelations of secret clauses and covert stationing of nuclear weapons on Japanese territory in recent weeks have further inflamed public opinion.

But in the last four months, the DPJ led government has made some other decisions that have not been looked upon favourably in Washington. These include the withdrawal of its naval forces from the Indian Ocean which were deployed to provide non-combat support for the US troops deployed in Afghanistan. At the same time, Tokyo has announced a $5 billion aid plan for Afghanistan. The new government in Tokyo has talked about plans for setting up an East Asian Community. No role is being contemplated for the US in this Asian version of the EU.

It is obvious that there is a serious rethink underway in Japan on the rationale for continuing with the unequal relationship with Washington. America’s 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 US.