By far the most important relationship to the United States in the Asia-Pacific region is that with Japan, and Washington hopes to strengthen these ties, a former deputy secretary of defense said.
John Hamre, now president and CEO of the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, said that while U.S. President George W. Bush has in substance a similar approach to Japan and Asia as his predecessor, Bill Clinton, he is much more straightforward in expressing a desire to maintain close security ties with Japan.
“It was confusing for Japan because the Clinton administration focused on having close and warm relations with China,” Hamre said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “But Bush would say: ‘Our bedrock relations and interests in Asia all hinge on our relations with Japan. We may want to be friends with China but we will always be allies with Japan.’
“That’s a very important approach to take right now because there are lots of questions in Japan about security and about its relations with China.
“We have to be very clear about that. Japan wants good relations with China. The U.S. wants good relations with China. But both of us need to have a strong alliance with each other.”
Hamre — who was U.S. deputy secretary of defense under Clinton from 1997 to 1999 — was in Tokyo last week for a three-day conference on global aging, jointly sponsored by CSIS and the Japan External Trade Organization.
His words may bring a sigh of relief to some Japanese policymakers who were concerned about the “Japan passing” phenomenon during the previous U.S. administration. With China’s growing power and its own myriad economic problems, Japan’s global presence seems to have dramatically plunged over the past decade.
Even so, Bush’s emphasis on the Japanese-U.S. alliance and his desire for Japan to play a greater role in security is likely to raise difficult questions, particularly in terms of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.
Hamre stressed the need for a debate on the review of Article 9 of the Constitution and for Japan to have greater confidence in its Self-Defense Forces.
“If read too narrowly, Article 9 could limit what Japan needs to do for itself and what it can do in consultation with the U.S. for our broader alliance relationship,” said Hamre, echoing the recent remarks of some senior U.S. officials. “This is the debate Japan has to have. What this administration will do is to encourage that.”
Hamre disagreed that Article 9 — which bars the use of force to settle international disputes — prevents Japan from participating in the missile defense program currently being pushed by the Bush administration.
“The word is defense. Does Japan have the right to prevent hostile acts against its own soil? Absolutely,” he said.
China’s opinion is that establishing the defense system would be an offensive act, an argument Hamre dismisses and one he says should not worry the Japanese.
“There ought to be full confidence here in Japan that they can proceed with the missile defense system,” he said. “That’s fully consistent with their rights to defend Japanese soil.”
The former defense department official believes that Article 9 envisions Japan’s right to collective defense in certain circumstances.
“If the U.S. and Japan are threatened simultaneously here in Japan, does that mean we can’t act collectively? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think ruling anything out would be wrong. If a missile (was) to come against the facilities in Japan, where American forces and Japanese forces are put at risk, why would we say we can’t do anything?”
Missile defense is a higher priority for the Bush administration than it was for the Clinton administration, Hamre said, although issues remain between Bush and Congress, including the cost and feasibility of the system.
He said the U.S. needs the defense system because there has been a trend over the past 15 years for certain countries to produce long-range missiles when they have no legitimate defensive reason for doing so.
“Why would North Korea need a missile that can fly 5,000 miles (8,000 km)? Why would Iran need to build a missile that would fly 6,000 miles? Because they want to politically intimidate the U.S. and other countries in the West,” he said, adding that the U.S. must respond to those moves.
“For Japan, of course, it’s a theater missile defense, which covers a shorter range. We’re working with Japan for the same reasons so that it doesn’t feel intimidated to be able to do the right thing in times of crisis.”