LOS ANGELES — It was a perfect (if quiet) storm in the tense triangular relationship among Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, but with all the noise coming from North Africa and the Middle East, hardly anyone noticed three developments.
The first one involved China. President Barack Obama pulled Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, a quiet Chinese-American, out of his Cabinet and re-assigned him to Beijing to replace former Republican Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who is considering a run for the White House.
Huntsman’s resignation as America’s ambassador to Beijing is effective April 30. Locke, with his West Coast perspective on international issues, was a good quick substitute pick. It might even prove a net plus.
So far, so good, but then Japan had an announcement to make, too. America’s closest ally across the Pacific offered up a new foreign minister: the ultra-cautious Takeaki Matsumoto.
Seiji Maehara, though intellectually refined, was forced to step down in the muck of yet another only-in-Tokyo campaign financing mess. It’s hard to see how this one is a net plus.
Matsumoto’s first headache will be to cope with increasing Japanese public apprehension over China’s military buildup. Lately Beijing and Tokyo have been circling each other in the East China Sea as warily as Siamese fighting fish in a tiny fishbowl. If they keep poking their noses at one another’s circling ships, planes and helicopters, something is going to have to give.
Then, as if this weren’t enough, Washington offered up a third shock. The U.S. State Department had to publicly sack Kevin Maher as head of its Japanese affairs office for some bizarre and exceptionally politically incorrect observations about the alleged character deficiencies of Japanese citizens in Okinawa.
Okinawa is the big festering toothache in the Japanese-U.S. alliance. This southernmost island of Japan has been virtually an American military colony for six decades. It’s where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, with no less than 17,000 marines of the 3rd Marine Division, sits controversially against the will of local public opinion.
It would be a sign of respect if the Obama administration would move them elsewhere, unconditionally. Maher’s unauthorized but hurtful comments offer us that opportunity anew.
The three changes surfaced independently, of course, but underneath that surface is an unnerving swirl of worry about China’s rise and Japan’s decline. In different ways, both trends could combine into a security threat to the United States, which remains the leading military power in the Asia-Pacific region — and wishes to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Japan is already alarmed about China and has issued yet another warning that it is not to be trifled with in the seas around the long-disputed islands of Senkaku, which has suddenly become one of the globe’s top hot spots. Beijing, which also claims the island (as Diaoyu), has been brushing ships and helicopters up against the Japanese to test their resolve.
Once that of a marshmallow, the Japanese resolve has suddenly become dangerously firm. The reason is domestic political weakness in the Kan government. Any unanswered provocation would almost certainly cause the Democratic Party of Japan government to fall. It is usually the case that governments are most dangerous when they are weakest. That is the the case in Tokyo right now.
Amid these uncertainties, the one move Washington could make to help would be to bow to Okinawan sentiment and accept the Japanese wish for the marines to be moved elsewhere. That is the real lesson of the Maher incident. It is sad that so few in Washington understand what it means to be a true friend and ally.
Weak as the Kan government is, it would become immeasurably stronger domestically overnight if Obama were to extend the largess of a withdrawal of some of our forces as a gesture of respect to our most important ally in Asia. Even relocated on a U.S. base on the West Coast, our marines would be available as a strike force in plenty of time.
No matter what Obama decides about Japan and Okinawa, the Chinese military buildup will proceed apace. It is its national right to have the armaments it believes necessary for its security. Centuries of pushy exploitation by European powers, not to mention by Japan, have not eased its buildup mentality.
This is why withdrawing our marines from Okinawa would not only cement our friendship with Japan but also send a positive signal to those in Beijing who argue (against their military) that America may be a hegemon but that it is not an aggressive one.
And it would be one heckuva opening message for new Ambassador Locke to bring with him when he presents his credentials as the new U.S. ambassador to Beijing.
American journalist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, the largest Catholic University on the U.S. West Coast. His most recent book “Conversations With Mahathir Mohamad” is the second best-seller in the “Giants of Asia” series. © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center