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The new Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori should start mapping out a grand design for Japan’s national-security policies for the first half of the 21st century.

Mori replaced Keizo Obuchi as prime minister April 5, after Obuchi suffered a stroke and was hospitalized April 2. Obuchi’s sudden collapse was followed by major political turmoil, since Japan faces an imminent Lower House election. The Liberal Party bolted the ruling coalition, in which it had served with the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, and was replaced in the alliance by the Conservative Party, which was launched by a splinter group of the LP.

Political upheaval has not been limited to Japan, however. New presidents have been elected in Russia and Taiwan, and a parliamentary election was held last week in South Korea. The U.S. presidential election is scheduled for November.

A decade after the Cold War ended, there are moves in the Asia-Pacific region to establish a new security framework for the 21st century. Now is the time to start reviewing national-security policies under the Japan-U.S. military alliance, from strategic viewpoints to coping with changes on the Korean Peninsula, China-Taiwan relations and developments in Southeast Asia.

In mid-March, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen visited Tokyo and held talks with Japanese government leaders. The only tangible result of the talks was U.S. agreement to return the radar-approach control system at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Japanese control, on condition that U.S. military operational requirements are met.

Cohen and other U.S. officials expressed concern over the emission of dioxin-polluted smoke from a Japanese industrial waste-disposal company, Enviro-Tec, near Atsugi Naval Air Facility. The company, also known as “Shinkampo,” has long been a thorn in the side of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

Differences between Japan and the United States also surfaced in negotiations over the revision of the Special Measures Agreement covering host-nation support for U.S. forces in Japan, a pact that expires in March 2001. When Japan sought a reduction in its contributions on grounds of fiscal difficulties, Rust Deming, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stressed the “strategic importance” of the support.

In January, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley said during a speech in Tokyo that the Japan-U.S. security alliance protects Japan and helps stabilize the region. He noted that Japan provides “significant support” for the 47,000-troop U.S. forward deployment, at a cost of nearly $5 billion a year. Foley also said that host-nation support and the revised guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation were two major elements in the bilateral security alliance.

Regarding the planned relocation of U.S. Futenma Marine Air Station in Okinawa to a substitute site, Okinawan authorities asked that the use of the new facility be limited to 15 years. It would be difficult for Japan and the U.S. to settle this issue before the Group of Eight countries hold a summit in Okinawa in July.

Japan and the U.S., busy negotiating individual issues in their security system, have failed to conduct high-level strategic talks on their respective roles in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

In a speech to the Japan National Press Club, Cohen said, “In this era of uncertainty, the certainty of the U.S.-Japan alliance is the key foundation upon which rests the peace, the prosperity and the stability of the entire region.”

Deming, meanwhile, said the presence of the 100,000-troop U.S. forward deployment serves as the “oxygen of security” that supports economic development of the Asia-Pacific region.

With the Cold War over, the U.S. appears to be trying to restructure its defense strategies. In 1996, the U.S. issued separate joint declarations on security with Japan and Australia. In 1998, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Philippines on the status of American troops visiting there and reached agreement with Singapore on American ships’ visits to naval bases in the city state. All these moves were intended to strengthen Asian security.

In recent years, Asia has been destabilized by a series of events, including the regional financial turmoil in 1997, the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto regime and the independence of East Timor, suspected nuclear-arms and missile development in North Korea, and nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, must decide this summer or fall whether to deploy the National Missile Defense system to protect the continental U.S. from foreign missile attacks. His decision will have a serious influence on U.S.-Russian relations.

Ongoing Japan-U.S. joint technical research on theater missile defense could also spur a military buildup in Asia.

The U.S. reviews its defense strategies every four years. Japanese security experts believe that Washington is likely to conduct a defense review for Asia and the Pacific in early 2001, after a new administration is inaugurated. Following the review, Washington is expected to ask its allies, such as Japan, to shoulder more of the defense burden. The question is, is Japan ready to take on increased defense responsibilities?

Since approving the revised guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation in May 1999, the Diet has failed to enact any security-related legislation — for example, bills for dealing with military crises, mobilizing the Self-Defense Forces to prevent foreign aggression in Japanese territory, both land and sea. New Komeito, a partner in the ruling coalition, is reluctant to support such legislation.

The three partners in the former ruling coalition agreed to approve legislation that would lift the freeze on Japan’s participation in major U.N. peacekeeping activities, but no legislative action has been taken in this regard. This is because such action could offend some voters in the runup to the general election.

Regarding the right of collective self-defense, an advisory panel to the prime minister on Japanese goals for the 21st century recommended that Japan move forward with the enactment of necessary legislation and encourage public debate.

The question is whether Prime Minister Mori, who retained all members of the Obuchi Cabinet in his administration, has the political will to draw up a grand design for security policies in line with these recommendations.

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