OSAKA — The unprecedented involvement of the U.S. military in rescue and relief operations amid the Tohoku disaster has U.S. and Japanese policy experts hoping the effort will lead to closer bilateral cooperation on disaster planning and other issues, not least the Futenma base relocation.
But the difference in the way Washington and Tokyo publicly responded to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant emergency, has others worried it could make a host of bilateral issues more politically difficult.
With Japan the second-largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds, after China, there is also worry on the U.S. side that Japan may be forced to dump some of those bonds to pay for a reconstruction effort that will be in the tens of trillions of yen.
“I’m a little bit worried about these divergent assessments — the Japanese government on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other — about the severity of the crisis,” said Richard Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at a symposium in Washington. “That may lead to a certain amount of resentment in Japan, that the U.S. lacks confidence in their institutional capacity.”
There is also concern in Washington over how China may use the disaster. While Bush said he doubted Beijing would exploit the situation, he added it should be kept in mind that China was continuing to draw closer to Japan.
“China has a strategic interest in weaning Japan away from its reliance on the United States and encouraging Tokyo to be more accommodative to its interests,” he said.
Under Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. Marines and Navy are cooperating with the Self-Defense Forces to provide humanitarian assistance to the quake victims.
Many of the marines are based in Okinawa, and the lessons learned from the Tohoku disaster experience will form the basis for future efforts by the U.S. to further strengthen bilateral military cooperation in the event of natural calamities.
However, whether these efforts will affect efforts to relocate the U.S. Marine base at Futenma to Henoko, which is strongly opposed by the Okinawans, remains uncertain.
“My fear would be that the Japanese government, both political leadership and bureaucrats, would be so focused on issues related to relief reconstruction and so on that they would not have time to face what is a politically controversial question in Japan,” said Charles Ebinger, director of energy security at the Brookings Institution, also at the symposium. “We had the road map agreed to five years ago, basically, and very little progress has been made.”
He added: “I hope that it improves the environment (for discussions). But I think Americans have also learned in the last couple of weeks that it’s better not to say too much about Okinawa at all.”
Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa expressed his gratitude to members of the U.S. military aboard the USS Ronald Reagan on Monday for their involvement in search and other relief efforts following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Kitazawa relayed Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s message to about 2,000 U.S. personnel in the ship’s hanger: “All of the disaster-struck people and Japanese people were touched by the hard work exhibited by U.S. troops in rescue efforts.”
“We will make an all-out effort to overcome this hardship, while obtaining cooperation from you,” Kitazawa also said aboard the carrier, situated off the tsunami-ravaged northeast coast of Honshu.
Separately from Kan’s message, a tearful Kitazawa also said, “I have never been more encouraged by and proud of the fact that the United States is our ally.”