Japan’s Security Not Tied to U.S. Presidential Result

June 22nd, 2008  The Yomiuri Shimbun

  These days I am often asked with great seriousness about what would happen to Japan if a Democratic candidate won the upcoming U.S. presidential election. However, Japan is not the only country that cares about the outcome of the presidential contest.
   A high-ranking official of the Palestinian extremist organization Hamas declared that it hoped Democrat Barack Obama would win the election, according to Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of the U.S. magazine Commentary.
   Schoenfeld also quotes a close aide to Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev as saying Sen. John McCain was the worst choice and Obama the best.
   Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s radical socialist president, also has lambasted McCain, calling him “a man of war.”
   In Iran, according to Schoenfeld, a character named John McCain is a villain in a TV drama who is responsible for “orchestrating numerous conspiracies against the Islamic Republic.”
   This time, the Japanese are reacting to the U.S. presidential campaign in an unusual way.
   In past U.S. presidential elections, many Japanese intellectuals believed individuals supporting the Democratic candidate were liberal and progressive, while those backing the Republican were reactionaries.
   Because of this, so-called intellectuals in this country almost always favored a Democratic candidate.
   Memories of Japan bashing
   This time around, though, many Japanese who have expressed an interest in the upcoming election appear apprehensive about the possible emergence of a Democratic administration in the United States.
   This is due to lingering memories of Japan bashing in the early stages of the Clinton administration in the first half of the 1990s. Certainly viewed from an objective standpoint, Japan bashing at that time was extremely high-handed.
   This is one of the reasons why there is still a strong sense of trepidation toward the United States among Japanese business leaders, who are conventionally conservative and well-disposed toward Washington.
   Another factor is that in the Clinton era both White House and State Department officials who formulated Asian policies were almost exclusively China experts.
   This contrasted sharply with the first term of the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005, which was characterized by an array of friends of Japan, headed by Richard Armitage.
   It is a general tendency that officials well versed in the Chinese language, not only in the United States but elsewhere, such as in the Indian Foreign Ministry, incline to be pro-Chinese.
   Given the rapid increase of Chinese influence over the past decade, fears understandably loom large over U.S. foreign policy having a pro-China bias in a Democratic administration.
   However, I believe there will be little difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to U.S. policy toward Japan.
   If the Republicans retain the presidency, it is uncertain whether the Armitage group will return to the White House. Republican heavyweights, such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, appear to be sympathetic toward China.
   Even in the case of a Democratic White House, the current state of affairs differs completely from the early 1990s, when the end to the Soviet military menace prompted the United States to swivel its eyes onto the economic threat from Japan.
   Richard Holbrook, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton during the primary election campaign, early this year stressed that the Japan-U.S. alliance “remains the foundation of United States policy” in the Asia-Pacific region.
   Also noteworthy in this connection, the U.S. State Department at one time appeared to have opted to make decisions in the six-way talks on North Korea’s nuclear program only through a dialogue with China. This has led to suspicions that the two countries are plotting U.S.-China condominium in East Asia.
   Recently, however, the State Department has repeatedly committed to acting in the interests of U.S. allies whenever discussing cooperation in multilateral talks in East Asia.

Tagon Saves the Day
   It is also worthy of note that the Pentagon has been a reliable partner of Japan.
   When bilateral trade friction between the United States and Japan had sunk to its nadir in February 1995, the so-called “Nye Report” issued by the U.S. Defense Department saved the day for Japan.
   The report said: “We must not allow trade friction [between Japan and the United States] to undermine our security alliance.”
   However, a high-ranking White House official allegedly attacked the report, saying the Pentagon’s argument was tantamount to depriving Washington of its most potent leverage for making Japan comply with U.S. trade demands.
   Remembering this remark, chills ran down my spine at the thought of what could have happened if the Pentagon had not intervened.
   In the 1980s, during the last phase of the Cold War, Washington called upon its allies to boost cooperation with the United States to cope with the situation.
   Partly because its cooperation with the United States had been inadequate for a long time, Japan was quick to act. It helped realize a reversal of the military balance between the East and the West in the Far East.
   The Pentagon’s report defending Japan, as the trade friction issue became increasingly grave, was issued because of this solid foundation of mutual trust that Jim Auer, director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation, referred to as a “hidden success story.”
   Irrespective of whether the U.S. administration in 2009 is Democratic or Republican, the Japan-U.S. alliance can remain strong in the face of any obstacle provided mutual trust in military cooperation remains firm.
   To ensure this, efforts must continue to be made to maintain and strengthen the bilateral military relationship of mutual trust.

‘Sympathy budget’ imperative
   Recently, there have been calls to end Japan’s special host nation budgetary appropriations for U.S. forces in Japan. Known as the sympathy budget, these funds pay much of the cost of maintaining U.S. forces stationed in this country.
   I worked for the then Defense Agency three decades ago and the annual defense budget was below 1 percent of the gross national product. This is still the case.
   In addition, Japan is unable to exercise the right to collective self-defense. Therefore, we have remained heavily dependent on the United States for national security.
   Consequently, Japan believed it should at least pay the living expenses for U.S. military personnel stationed here, as well as their dependents.
   The sympathy budget has been a great success. When speaking of Japan-U.S. security ties, high-ranking U.S. officials invariably refer to this measure as generous and supportive.
   Opponents of the sympathy budget continue to ask how long this funding will last. However, since the budget was created in 1978, the circumstances necessitating it remain unchanged.
   U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Schieffer has often pointed out the deficiencies in Japan’s budgetary appropriations for defense.
   As for Japan’s right to collective self-defense, there is a need more than ever to enable this country to exercise that right.
   Out of consideration for Japan’s domestic affairs, Washington stops short of making any demands on this matter officially. It is evident, though, that the United States wants this problem resolved as soon as possible.

No excuse for inaction
   When North Korea test-launched a number of missiles in 2006, a U.S. Aegis-equipped destroyer tracked them in the Sea of Japan. Because the Aegis vessel was fully occupied with tracking the missiles, the Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces should have been prepared to protect it from a possible North Korean attack. However, Japan could not do so because it could not exercise the right to collective self-defense.
   Moreover, in 2007, Japan’s Aegis-equipped destroyer Kongo successfully conducted a missile-intercept test, bringing the nation’s missile defense system closer to reality.
   Meanwhile, the government is in favor of transferring U.S. marines from Okinawa Prefecture to Guam to reduce the burden of the U.S. military presence on the prefecture.
   The government cannot justify its inability to shoot down missiles in the event of a North Korean attack on U.S. marines, who are helping to ensure Japan’s security. Japan should be able to help them if they are attacked, whether they are in Guam or Hawaii or on the West Coast of the U.S. mainland.
   Fortunately, only a few experts in the United States know of this situation. What would happen to the Japan-U.S. security framework should the U.S. Congress and the general public decide to address Japan’s failure to defend the marines, as well as U.S. Aegis-equipped ships?
   Instead of feeling uneasy about whether the U.S. presidential election will end in a Democratic win, we should address squarely and urgently the challenge of Japan’s right to collective self-defense.