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Panelists at a symposium on Japan-U.S. relations held in Tokyo this week agreed that Japan should lift its ban on engaging in collective defense as both nations seek to strengthen security ties.

Both sides maintained, however, that more discussion is needed before Japan can cooperate with the new U.S. missile defense strategy, with opinions on missile defense still apparently mixed even within the U.S.

The Monday symposium, titled “U.S.-Japan Security Relations under the New U.S. Administration,” involved discussions by 12 panelists from the two countries and some 80 other participants.

It was cosponsored by the Tokyo-based Global Forum of Japan, a nonprofit membership group of opinion leaders, and the Washington-based Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, a public policy think tank on U.S.-Asia affairs.

In his keynote address, James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Studies, argued that the time is ripe for Japan to discuss exercising its right to engage in collective defense, echoing the stance of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who took office in April.

Auer also cited Koizumi’s appointments of Taku Yamasaki as secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party and Gen Nakatani as Defense Agency chief as a positive development, as both of them “favor revision of the Constitution in order to legitimize collective self-defense.”

Yamasaki once served as defense chief, while Nakatani was a Defense Academy graduate and ex-Ground Self-Defense Force officer.

Japan has long maintained that its Constitution bans it from exercising the right to participate in collective defense. Koizumi told the Diet earlier this month, however, that passing a resolution to allow Japan to exercise this right would be “one option.”

“If the prohibition on the exercising of collective self-defense is removed, either by constitutional revision or by a change in government policy, the major constraint to closer security cooperation will have been removed,” Auer said.

Okinawa cutback possible

Having long served in Japan as a U.S. Navy officer, Auer predicted that the enhancement of bilateral security cooperation through Japan’s commitment to collective defense could lead to a reduction in the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

While stressing the continuing importance of Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa due to its strategic location in relation to China and Taiwan, Auer said, “The U.S. can and will examine the situation flexibly” in terms of other facilities in Okinawa.

More specifically, when a new airport is built off Nago to take over the helicopter operations of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station, the facility could also take over the marines’ Makiminato Storage Area and the U.S Army’s Naha port facility in southern Okinawa, he said. “It is possible to maintain alliance credibility with a smaller U.S. footprint.”

H.C. Stackpole, president of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, noted, however, that the U.S. will not comply with Okinawa’s demand that a 15-year time limit be set on the use of a new facility off Nago.

“Any intent to withdraw in timetable from Okinawa and Japan would create a very unstable situation” in the region, Stackpole said.

In 1996, the U.S. agreed to return the Futenma site to Japan on condition that an alternative facility is built in Okinawa.

Tokyo has proposed the new airport off Nago, although local governments maintain that the U.S. must accept their time limit demands before construction of the new facility begins.

Tadae Takubo, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Kyorin University, supports Auer’s view and said the Koizumi Cabinet can and should make a political decision to lift the self-imposed ban on collective defense, given the Cabinet’s strong public approval ratings.

“I don’t think it’s right that Japan runs away when the situation becomes dangerous,” Takubo said, referring to a current bilateral arrangement under which Japan only provides logistics support to U.S. military activities in crisis areas surrounding Japan.

Koji Kakizawa, an independent member of the Lower House and former foreign minister, said that, ideally, Japan should revise the Constitution so it can engage in collective defense.

But he said that since a revision would be a time-consuming process, Japan should take a two-step approach, first changing the state’s interpretation of the Constitution before it is “too late,” then actually revising the Constitution itself at a later stage.

Kakizawa noted that Japan’s involvement in collective defense should be limited to crises in areas surrounding Japan — such as the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait — and not be expanded to include attacks on the U.S. mainland.

The new missile defense initiative of President George W. Bush’s administration was another major topic raised, with no consensus reached among the participants on whether Japan should be involved and, if so, how.

In his address at the National Defense University on May 1, Bush voiced a clear departure from the nuclear deterrence system deployed during the Cold War.

He revealed his commitment to deploying a super shield against ballistic missile attacks by “some of the world’s least responsible states.”

James Przystup, senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the university, emphasized the importance of missile defense due to the increased threat of attacks by smaller states like North Korea and Iraq.

Emerging threats in Asia, in the wake of China’s M-9 missile launch off Taiwan in 1996 and North Korea’s Taepodong missile launch over Japan in 1998, make Japanese cooperation with the U.S. missile defense system both relevant and urgent, he argued.

“Missile defenses provide protection for vital military and political assets, command and control facilities, and population centers — all potential targets in a regional contingency in ‘areas surrounding Japan,’ ” he said.

Following the Taepodong launch, Japan and the U.S. began joint technical research in 1999 on the Theater Missile Defense plan.

The plan is aimed at defending U.S. allies in East Asia. This is in contrast to the National Missile Defense plan, which is aimed at defending the U.S. proper.

Tokyo has yet to decide if it will move on from the current research on TMD to the development and deployment stages, given the expected technical difficulties and enormous costs of such a move.

Przystup said, however, that cooperation on the development of missile defenses will be necessary “if we are to build a stronger, more credible and more effective alliance” under the evolving threats to the national security of both nations.

Japan in dark over TMD

One question to which panelists had no clear answer was how Bush’s omission of any reference to either the NMD or TMD system — with the president only using the term “missile defense” to describe the new plan — would affect Japan’s cooperation on joint TMD research.

There are fears that, should TMD research be part of a new global defense strategy, Japan’s continued participation in the program could violate its collective defense ban.

Przystup merely referred to remarks by Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, during his visit to Japan earlier this month, that the TMD plan is aimed mainly at defending Japan and that joint research could be continued even under the new plan.

Masahiro Akiyama, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and former vice defense minister, pointed out that the U.S. government is “still confused” about the new missile defense plan.

Conflicting views have been heard on the issue from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as from experts, Akiyama observed.

Unless the U.S. clarifies what it is trying to achieve under the new defense plan, or how it is different from NMD or TMD, it will be difficult for it to convince its allies — including Japan — to support the new strategy, he said.

Akiyama noted he is “seriously concerned” about China’s reaction if the U.S. deploys a missile defense system.

“China will certainly modernize and increase its nuclear weapons . . . which will be a threat to Japan’s security.”

Japan should have more in-depth dialogue with the U.S. on the issue, including the possible reaction of China, Akiyama said.

Political consultant Dan Bob predicted that NMD will be one of the key issues in the 2002 midterm election and 2004 presidential election.

“Since no NMD system currently works, Democrats believe that real debate on national missile defense has not really started,” Bob said.

“They also think when the American public better understands the issue — its cost — they might not be so readily supportive.”

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