As security pact with U.S. turns 50, Japan looks to redefine relations

by Masami Ito

The Japanese-U.S. security treaty in its current form turned 50 Tuesday. Throughout the decades, the two nations have had their ups and downs and occasional tension, but together they weathered the Cold War and entered a new era and new century.

Now, half a century after the bilateral pact was signed, leaders of the two nations have voiced an eagerness to strengthen the alliance.

But bilateral ties are strained at present, and how well Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling bloc can deepen them remains to be seen. Pundits say this is a good year to thoroughly review defense policies, and that a true deepening of the alliance to face the next 50 years depends on it.

The DPJ, which took power in September from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is believed in a better position to further develop relations with the U.S. under President Barack Obama because he and Hatoyama share common goals and policies, including development in the Third World, eradication of poverty, measures to curb global warming and the fight against nuclear nonproliferation.

Fumiaki Kubo, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo, however, said that instead of using this opportunity, the Hatoyama administration is placing itself in a disadvantage.

“The 50th anniversary is supposed to be a good opportunity to broaden and deepen Japan’s cooperative relationship with the U.S. not only on security but on other key issues as well,” Kubo said. “But the Japanese government has been picking an unnecessary fight with the U.S. — making statements that have triggered distrust and made Japan seem to value China more — and (this) is putting Japan at a disadvantage.”

Since taking office, Hatoyama has been calling for a “close and equal” Japan-U.S. relationship. During his first news conference of the new year, he said he wanted to take advantage of the 50th anniversary to further develop trust with the U.S. by standing up and stating honest opinions.

“It is no good avoiding difficult subjects and simply doing as the other side says; instead, we should be able to say clearly what we think needs to be said,” Hatoyama said. “And through such an approach, we will develop greater trust between us.”

What Hatoyama was talking about, Kubo said, was cutting the “omoiyari” budget, the costs borne by Japan for supporting the U.S. forces here, and revising the Status of Forces Agreement governing how the U.S. military operates in Japan — neither of which the U.S. wants to discuss.

“In real terms, a more equal alliance for the U.S. is for Japan to increase its defense budget and assist the U.S. and to approve collective self-defense,” Kubo said. “The definition of Hatoyama’s ‘equal’ relationship is not compatible with that of the U.S. . . . Hatoyama’s image is for Japan to become more independent (from the U.S.), and under certain circumstances, to lessen military cooperation.”

The Japan-U.S. security alliance is unique in that the two nations bear different responsibilities.

Article 5 of the treaty obliges the two countries to jointly defend Japan by recognizing an armed attack on Japan as a common danger to the peace and safety of both countries. But there is nothing on Japan’s role and duty should the U.S. be in danger, and under the current interpretation of the Constitution, Japan would not be obliged to defend America.

So instead, Article 6 of the pact enables the U.S. forces to use facilities and areas in Japan deemed necessary “for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”

“The give-and-take relationship may not be symmetrical, but it is bilateral,” Kubo said. “But (with the terrorist threat since 9/11), it is highly likely that the U.S. will express strong dissatisfaction that Japan, as an alliance partner, is not directly participating in helping the U.S.”

The asymmetrical relationship has repeatedly been the cause of friction, Akihisa Nagashima, parliamentary defense secretary, said during a panel discussion hosted by Kyodo News last week.

“Ever since the forming of the Japan-U.S. alliance, the relationship has found itself in a critical state over and over again over the asymmetrical responsibilities under the basic structure,” Nagashima said. “To make the Japan-U.S. alliance sustainable in the next 30 or 50 years, we need to stabilize the alliance.”

And things are especially strained between the two nations over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. In 2006, the LDP promised to move the base’s aircraft operations to Camp Schwab in Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island, but now the Hatoyama administration is interested in moving the airstrip out of the prefecture altogether.

Critics, including Takashi Kawakami, a professor of security issues at Takushoku University, say that while Futenma is only one part of the big picture, the fate of the base could deeply influence bilateral ties.

Kawakami pointed out that the situation is especially serious considering that Tokyo and Washington signed the Guam Treaty last year, under which the Futenma facility is to be relocated to Camp Schwab.

“We are reaching a point where Japan is saying it cannot fulfill its (side of the agreement),” Kawakami said. “Breaking the treaty is as serious as when (Japan) withdrew from the League of Nations (in the 1930s). Futenma is an issue Japan should deal with with national dignity.”

Last week, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to put a positive spin on relations when they met in Hawaii.

They officially agreed to launch foreign and defense minister talks on further deepening the alliance. The talks are not only to focus on security but also a broad spectrum of themes, including the economy and the environment.

“The passing decades have brought new challenges and new opportunities, but through it all, the alliance between the United States and Japan has been the bedrock for regional peace and prosperity,” Clinton said in Hawaii. “So today, we know that this partnership is not just indestructible; it is truly indispensable.”

True, the world has seen drastic changes since 1945.

The 1950 outbreak of the Korean War and the Cold War against the former Soviet Union made Japan strategically important to the U.S.

Japan signed the original pact in 1951 to allow the U.S. military to be stationed in the country. The accord was revised in 1960 to strengthen bilateral security ties.

“Until the (end of the) Cold War, (the treaty) protected Japan from communism . . . and Japan served as a bulwark against communism for the U.S.,” Kawakami said. “But after the Cold War, the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance became based on how much the U.S. could use its bases in peacetime and how much Japan could participate with the U.S. in emergencies.”

The end of the Cold War did not mean the security treaty was no longer necessary, as demonstrated by North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat and the growing military might of China, with double-digit increases in defense spending for 21 years in a row.

As the two nations enter the 50th anniversary of the security treaty, Kawakami stressed that how Japan and the U.S. review the alliance will be key to the future.

This year “is the most important turning point since World War II, and I think that if Japan doesn’t properly redefine the Japan-U.S. alliance, bilateral ties could begin to lose their significance,” Kawakami said. “Times have changed since the enactment of the treaty and Japan needs to adjust itself to the changes by deciding whether to work with the U.S., work on its own, or join hands with another country.”

Japan endeared itself to the U.S. in 2003 when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi dispatched Self-Defense Forces units to Iraq to aid in the U.S.-led coalition effort.

Kubo of the University of Tokyo said any true deepening of the alliance will ultimately require discussion on whether Japan will be willing to engage in collective self-defense, and thus open to reinterpreting the Constitution.

A positive discussion on collective self-defense “would deepen and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance, and it is something the U.S. would greatly welcome,” Kubo said. “True, Japan’s obligations would increase, but the merit would lie in the fact that (collective self-defense) would deepen trust with the U.S.”