Japan faces an uphill struggle to convince the United States that the indecisive Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is in step with U.S. President Barack Obama in working to ensure the security of Japan as well as East Asia under the two countries’ 50-year-old treaty.
With uncertainties remaining near Japan such as China’s military buildup and North Korea’s nuclear programs, Hatoyama is being tested as to whether he can take advantage of the pact’s half-century mark to secure regional stability through working closely with Obama.
The pact, formally known as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, has been a pillar of Japan’s defense and security policy since it was signed on Jan 19, 1960.
The two countries have widened the areas the treaty can cover both geographically and conceptually since the 1990s, giving legitimacy to closer cooperation between the U.S. military in Japan and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
Despite some domestic opposition, Japan hosts many key elements of the U.S. military outside U.S. territory such as the Navy’s 7th Fleet, the Marine Corp’s 3rd Expeditionary Force and the forward headquarters of the First Army Corps.
Japan, meanwhile, plans to move the top command office of the Air Self-Defense Force into the U.S. Yokota Air Base premises and a top antiterrorism unit of the Ground Self-Defense Force into the U.S. Army headquarters in Japan.
But politically, Hatoyama, nicknamed ‘‘alien’’ and accused by critics of sometimes being hard to pin down, has failed to work with Obama in harmony to build mutual confidence to brace for possible incidents in areas such as the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula.
In particular, Hatoyama has flip-flopped over a controversial 2006 accord to relocate the U.S. Marine Corp’s Futenma Air Station within Okinawa Prefecture since taking power in September. The issue has become a thorn in the U.S. side.
In November in Tokyo, Hatoyama reached an agreement with Obama to seek closer bilateral ties in many sectors, covering not only security but also disaster prevention and climate change.
The prime minister used the word ‘‘deepen’’ for the relationship but there have been few signs suggesting that the Hatoyama-Obama agreement can be implemented steadily.
Earlier this month, Japan withdrew the Maritime Self-Defense Force from the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean in support of U.S.-led antiterrorism operations in and near Afghanistan, while Hatoyama has also declined SDF deployment to Afghanistan.
Hatoyama may be tested in his efforts to put relations with the United States on what he calls an ‘‘equal’’ footing while preserving the security treaty, which only requires one party, namely the United States, to defend the other, Japan, in the event of a contingency.
The U.S. policy on nuclear weapons could also be a source of headaches for Hatoyama.
As the leader of the only country in the world to come under nuclear attack, Hatoyama has clearly declared his desire to lead a movement to abolish nuclear weapons. But he has yet to present any vision of how to ensure Japan’s security without the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States
In addition, the results of the ongoing investigation by the Japanese Foreign Ministry into suspected secret pacts with the United States are expected to stir controversy.
The pacts in question include those allowing the U.S. military to bring nuclear weapons to Japan despite a prohibition on doing so under Japan’s nonnuclear principles.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada ordered the Foreign Ministry’s top bureaucrat to thoroughly investigate the allegations soon after Hatoyama launched his government.
DPJ legislators said that any findings would bring the hidden side of the bilateral treaty into the light and make the public aware of the magnitude of the matter.
The Democratic Party of Japan, now the governing party Hatoyama heads, has a history of having criticized previous governments led by the Liberal Democratic Party for following the United States too easily.
When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dispatched SDF troops to Iraq despite the absence of a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation, breaking a decades-old tradition of only joining U.N. operations, the DPJ-led opposition stepped up its attacks.
Hitoshi Tanaka, a former deputy foreign minister, urged the Hatoyama government to take ‘‘very dynamic and multilateral measures that can create a framework of security in East Asia.’‘
Tanaka said he thinks that settlement of the ongoing dispute over the relocation of the Futenma airbase is indispensable for building closer ties with the United States and urged Hatoyama to keep his promise to hammer out an alternative to the current relocation site that both sides can accept by May.
‘‘It sounds natural that Japan has changed some policies along with the change of government…But it is possible that the U.S. side has suspicions that the Hatoyama government could weaken bilateral security ties,’’ said Tanaka, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school.
Meanwhile, military journalist Tetsuo Maeda who is generally critical of Japan’s security policy with the United States, urged the Hatoyama government to fully review the nature of the 50-year-old treaty.
‘‘The Japan-U.S. relationship has a long history and many (weighty) things occurred under the treaty. Because of this, whatever the United States says is pressure on Japan as if it is ‘the voice of heaven,’‘’ Maeda said. ‘‘But getting rid of such pressure should be the first step toward ‘equal’ relations.’’
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