Lt. Gen. Edward Rice, before he steps down next week as the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, said Thursday it is natural for any country, including Japan and China, to face bilateral “challenges” and expressed optimism the two countries will be able to move forward in a positive direction.
Japan-China relations have been severely strained over the arrest of a trawler captain last month near the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The islets are controlled by Japan but are claimed by China and Taiwan and are often the source of diplomatic tension.
During a round-table news conference with media outlets in Minato Ward, Tokyo, the air force officer said there are “no major conflicts” in the region.
“No relationship is without disagreements . . . (and it is) not an abnormal condition or a condition to fear,” Rice said. “The key is do we have mechanisms that allow us to work through those challenges while at the same time keeping open the opportunities that we have to work together to bring prosperity to our nations.”
Since the Senkaku incident, China has taken a hardline stance that led to a halt of exports of rare earth minerals to Japan. And a recent report by The New York Times suggested that China, which produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of the minerals, has blocked some shipments to the U.S. and Europe as well.
“I think all countries have a very strong economic relationship with China,” Rice said. “China has the capacity to contribute in many productive ways to the development of the region and what happens around the world. So we are all seeking, and I think (China) is seeking this too, are ways to engage constructively together.”
Rice, who will be promoted to the rank of general and take over as commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas next week, declined to say what kind of military support the U.S. would provide in case of a conflict between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku Islands.
Rice said the strategy depends on each contingency scenario.
“It is just very difficult to speculate or hypothesize about what we might do in a given scenario,” Rice said. “It is exactly why it is important for us to have flexible capabilities to include a basing structure that allows us to organize our forces to the requirements of a specific contingency.”
Rice, who arrived to Tokyo in February 2008, has seen the historic change in government from the Liberal Democratic Party to the Democratic Party of Japan. This past year, bilateral ties have been strained by the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
While most Okinawa residents have expressed strong doubt over the need for the marines to be stationed in Okinawa, Rice stressed that their presence is vital as a deterrent. He cited the uniqueness of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, whose duties range from amphibious operations to air assaults.
“I think that (the marines) have a very significant deterrent effect on the people we might want to deter because these people understand military operations,” Rice said.
“They understand time-distance relationships, they understand the capacity that’s inherent in a Marine Air-Ground Task Force and it affects every day their thinking about the U.S. presence here, the value of our alliance, and the strength of our alliance.”
Host-nation support is also a sensitive issue as there is some criticism in Japan over the money paid to Washington to support the U.S. military presence.
Rice said the financial support is Japan’s contribution to the alliance, just as he and other U.S. service members are obliged to defend Japan.
“I have obligated myself to defend Japan and if necessary, give my life in the defense of Japan. . . . That is part of our contribution to this alliance,” he said. “What value you put on my commitment to defend Japan is subjective in some way, but I would suggest that it is certainly not an unequal commitment for Japan to agree to host the forces that are here for their defense and provide a modest level of support for those forces as we meet our obligations.”