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The world is still trying to grasp the meaning of the summit between the two Koreas. Many are euphoric; wiser heads counsel that there is a long way to go before there’s real peace on the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, if reconciliation and, eventually, unification do come about, the effects will be felt throughout the entire region, and perhaps nowhere more strongly than in Japan.

The immediate effect of genuine peace would be a diminution of tension on the peninsula. That strikes at the heart of the rationale for a continuing U.S. military presence in South Korea. Seoul and Washington are already on the defensive. During her recent swing through Asia, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeated at every opportunity that the United States will not be cutting its forces in South Korea anytime soon.

The effects would also spread quickly beyond the Korean Peninsula. Since a Korean contingency has long been used to justify the U.S. presence in Japan, some claim that a Korean rapprochement would undermine the need for U.S. military bases here. But Akihisa Nagashima, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations who is studying the long-term U.S. presence in Asia, argued in an interview last month that the need for those bases remains compelling. Nagashima’s thinking is simple: Regional stability requires a forward U.S. military presence in Asia. The status quo is unsustainable, however. The U.S.-Japan alliance must be modified to adapt to the new external environment if it is to provide peace and security in the 21st century.

Both Japan and the U.S. must make the case for a rejuvenated bilateral alliance to their citizens and all of Asia. This task, argues Nagashima, is long overdue. The end of the Cold War has recalibrated the balance between benefits and burdens. The absence of a visible threat has made the costs of the alliance seem heavier. Unfortunately, policymakers on both sides of the Pacific — but especially in Japan, says Nagashima — have been slow to build support for a reformulated Japan-U.S. security alliance. The guidelines for Japan-U.S. defense cooperation have been updated, but politicians squandered an opportunity to educate the public about the continuing importance of the alliance.

Japan has very good reasons to be worried about the impact of Korean unification. Although South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has made historic efforts to close the gap between Japan and South Korea, there is no guarantee that this good will will survive his presidency. As the two Koreas draw closer, they are likely to look for external enemies to facilitate reunification. Japan is the likeliest candidate. Nagashima noted that after the last such rapprochement in 1991-2, when North and South signed a Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Cooperation as well as a Denuclearization Declaration, Japan was demonized. The U.S. is also likely to come under fire. There are already signs of growing anti-Americanism in South Korea.

Nagashima believes that the only way policymakers can make a case for the alliance is to break out of the bilateral framework and adopt a regional perspective: “U.S. presence contributes to regional stability. [So does] the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

In that light, U.S. bases in Japan will continue to be important for years to come. “The U.S. forces in Japan serve a staging function for power projection to the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. For that, Okinawa is the key; Hokkaido and Honshu will not suffice,” he explained. But the regional perspective has important implications for force structure. Navy and air force units are critical, the marine presence is not — at least not the current 37,000-man contingent. Nagashima believes the current complement of marines on Okinawa undermines the long-term viability of the U.S. presence. “We should be honest,” said Nagashima. “But both governments refuse to face facts. Neither wants to undermine the current situation.”

Creative diplomacy could turn this liability into an asset, however. Cutting the number of marines will help make force modernization more acceptable. “We need a theater missile defense program, so it makes sense to talk about sending some of the marines home as a way to show our good will and the desire to maintain stability in the region. In short, the Okinawa marines are a key bargaining chip,” said Nagashima.

But that is only the first step in what he sees as the reformulation of Japan’s role in regional security. Nagashima believes that the security alliance itself must be regionalized. First, it should be expanded to include South Korea. In the past, the alliance focused solely on defending the South from attack by the North; now it must broaden its outlook. Japan and South Korea must cooperate and coordinate policies, as well as roles and missions for their military forces.

Then Japan must lead in establishing a consultative mechanism for regionwide security initiatives. “Japan should help enlist host-nation support for a sustainable U.S. presence. We should start with like-minded states, like Australia, Korea, the Philippines and Singapore. That way we can help reconfigure the U.S. force presence,” Nagashima says.

This mechanism would involve securing facilities for U.S. forces in the event of an emergency as well as the prepositioning of equipment. “Of course, it will take time. We have to have a common purpose. The key is this: Asia needs the U.S. presence to stabilize the region,” said Nagashima.

There is one other caveat: China still looms. That is the most important variable when thinking about regional security. Treating China like an enemy will ensure that it becomes one, but prudent security planners must still be ready for any challenge to regional order. The trick, argues Nagashima, is to avoid intimidating Beijing.

That won’t be easy. In fact, none of Nagashima’s agenda will be easy to implement. Poiticians’ reluctance to squarely address the issues only compounds the difficulties. But it is also becoming clear that the alternative is unsustainable. The international environment in Asia continues to evolve. The Japan-U.S. security alliance must stay ahead of those changes if it is going to survive.

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