Global Policy Forum

Japan to Become "Britain of the Far East"


By Kosuke Takahashi*

Asia Times
February 24, 2005

The accord between the United States and Japan calling for strengthened bilateral military and security ties - ties already reinforced by China's military buildup, North Korea's nuclear crisis, and the global threat of terrorism - marks the evolution of the US-Japan relationship and signals a critical historic phase in the early 21st century. With possible flashpoints ranging from the Middle East to Northeast Asia, the US global military transformation - under fire from many quarters - is transforming Japan itself into a reliable and unswerving "Britain of the Far East".

Britain is the United States' closest ally in the Western Hemisphere, and the US wants Japan to become the Asian equivalent of the United Kingdom in the Eastern Hemisphere. The US is currently redeploying and transforming its military to expand its military operations in the so-called "arc of instability" stretching from Northeast Asia to the Middle East by securing and strengthening the forward deployment of US forces abroad. This new realignment will project US forces further, faster and with greater striking power when they reach their destination. Many analysts have pointed out Japan is becoming a linchpin, a key security outpost, in the United States' defense posture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Right-leaning Japanese politicians and military planners in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, appear to be willing, without much hesitation, to accept this new role of providing military hardware to the US, or participating in future conflicts under the wings of the American eagle. They want Japan to assume a more assertive (they would say rightful, while critics would say aggressive) role on the world stage and change its low profile in international politics by shedding its strong pacifism enshrined in the post-World War II US-imposed constitution in the future. They view the current constitution with its limits on combat overseas as anachronistic, unrealistic and irresponsible in the current turbulent world.

For ordinary Japanese, the issue of the consolidation and reduction of US military bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, is more important than anything else. The two nations agreed to accelerate consultations based on the objectives of realigning US military forces in Japan, committing themselves to reduce the burden on local communities hosting US forces while maintaining effective deterrence. Still, the relocation of US military units such as those in Okinawa to other local cities and towns could trigger strong opposition from concerned local governments and communities in the coming months.

Japan and the United States agreed last weekend in Washington to strengthen security and defense cooperation by setting "common strategic objectives" to deal with new threats such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The occasion was last Saturday's "two plus two" meeting of foreign affairs and defense chiefs from both nations. The agreement spelled out for the first time a common strategic objective to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait - to China's anger and great embarrassment (See Japan-US Joint Statement; US-Japan Joint Statement on North Korea; and the 1996 Japan-US Joint Declaration on their security alliance.)

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said US-Japan ties have never been better. "I cannot think of a time when the relationship has been closer or more constructive, and we value that in the United States and benefit from it," Rumsfeld said at the conclusion of the meeting. "[We] certainly understand that it [the defense relationship] remains a key pillar for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and a benefit to the world."

Japanese Defense Agency director general Yoshinori Ono agreed in separate talks with Rumsfeld on a US proposal for advancing joint research on a theater missile defense (TMD) system to the development stage in fiscal 2006, potentially targeting North Korea's Nodong and Daepodong missiles as well as China's Dong Feng missiles. Many analysts have pointed out that this missile defense system will become the actual bulwark of the Japan-US security alliance in the future.

The two sides also agreed to continue diplomatic efforts on the issue of North Korea's recent brandishing of nuclear weapons. Their joint statement said, "The ministers strongly urged North Korea to return to the six-party talks expeditiously and without preconditions, and to commit itself to complete dismantlement of all its nuclear programs in a transparent manner subject to verification." Japanese media have reported that Japan and the US affirmed their cooperation in preparing for any emergency cases, including a possible missile launch by the Hermit Kingdom, by sharing relevant information. The four ministers also negotiated a new joint security declaration expected to be signed by Koizumi and US President George W Bush this autumn in Tokyo.

China was upset by the statement, which also advocated resolving the Taiwan Strait conflict through peaceful dialogue and asked Beijing to be more "transparent" in military terms. China quickly criticized the US and Japan for meddling in its internal security affairs relating to Taiwan, which it considers part of China. Calling the US-Japan security alliance "a bilateral scheme spawned during the Cold War period", Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said, "The Chinese government and Chinese people firmly oppose the US-Japan statement on the Taiwan issue, which concerns China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security," People's Daily reported.

Meanwhile, Taiwan cautiously welcomed the statement from the US and Japan that identified maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait as a common security objective. "I welcome the international community's concern and interest in peace in the Taiwan Strait," Premier Frank Hsieh said in a statement. "Peace in the Taiwan Strait will help security and safety on the two sides. Taiwan should take up its responsibilities as a member of the global community," he was quoted as saying.

'Britain of the Far East'

Washington officials appear to have increasingly longed for closer defense relations with Japan that mirror the US-British special relationship in the past years, especially when Tokyo sent more than 1,000 Self-Defense Forces (SDF) personnel, mostly ground forces, to Iraq. The move was greatly appreciated by US officials at a time when the United States remained at odds over the Iraq with the European Union's main member nations, France and Germany. The term "special relationship" is commonly used to refer to the political and strategic ties between the US and the UK.

From their perspective, Britain is the United States' closest ally in Europe and Japan is its closest ally in Asia. But unlike Britain, Japan still cannot fully be involved in US military operations. Article 9 of the Japanese constitution prohibits the use of force as a means of settling international disputes, and the SDF is authorized to fight only if Japan itself is invaded, and then only on Japanese territory or in the surrounding sea and air. For this reason, Japanese troops were deployed to Samawah, a southern Iraqi city, which the Japanese government claims as non-combat zone, strictly on a "humanitarian" mission. The 2003 Special Measures Law stipulates that the SDF can only be sent to areas where hostilities are not under way. To send troops into a combat zone would violate this law.

Article 9 of the constitution, the "war-renouncing" provision, states:

1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of aggression of the state will not be recognized.

US officials appear to welcome a change in this state of military affairs in Japan and then seek a heightened level of the US-Japan alliance in the future - to parallel the US-British alliance. Washington has urged Tokyo to amend Article 9 and to authorize the right to collective self-defense. (Japan's current official stance is that it has this right, but cannot invoke it under the current constitution.) US military planners clearly want Tokyo to expand the SDF's activities to support US-led operations in Asia and elsewhere in the future. They may want to capitalize on the close personal ties between Bush and Koizumi to achieve their political and military ends.

Instructed by Koizumi, his LDP is currently mapping out a blueprint for amending the constitution by next November, when the party will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding. The LDP plans to release its constitutional amendment draft at that time.

This idea of transforming Japan into "Britain of the Far East" is nothing new. Richard Armitage, the former US deputy secretary of state, who has extensive knowledge of Japan, once expressed this idea in a special report for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University (in Washington, DC): This report has since been commonly known as the Armitage Report, referring to Japan as the "Britain of the Far East". Many senior officials have adopted that concept and used the expression. Michael Green, the current National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs, was a member of the Armitage group. On October 11, 2000, the study group led by Armitage, then president of Armitage Associates, said, "We see the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain as a model for the [US-Japan] alliance."

Japanese hawks and some hardline Japanese military planners and politicians do not find this idea offensive, or even distasteful. This could lead to realizing their long-cherished wish to amend the constitution. Although this is little known among foreign observers, the LDP's founding charter at the birth of the party in 1955 includes the "establishment of Japan's own constitution" as the party's basic policy. Koizumi himself once said, "The founding spirit of the LDP was to establish Japan's own constitution ... After 50 years, it's about time for the LDP to consider how to amend the constitution and come up with an idea to raise national debate on the issue."

By amending the constitution, they believe Japan will return to being a "normal" country again with the exercise of the right of collective self-defense and the full engagement in collective security arrangements such as those in the United Nations. They believe this also will mean the eventual removal of US troops from Japanese territory in the long term - a goal the LDP set forth in its founding policy statement of 1955, although at this time most conservative politicians recognize the strategic importance of having some local US military presence.

On Saturday, the two countries also agreed to look into handing over to Japan US-held base management and air-traffic-control rights in order to expand the joint use of the facilities, including Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. If this new arrangement is realized, the SDF would manage the bases and use them in conjunction with the US military. This looks like a US gesture of goodwill toward the Japanese public by making some concessions to Tokyo. Most Japanese politicians seem to believe that this joint use, instead of exclusive US use, would lead to a scaling back of the US military presence in the future. But some critics have pointed out that this could be just a pragmatic strategy of the US, without a real difference. By reducing the current footprints of US bases, Washington appears to seek those bases being made permanent but less offensive, despite strong anti-base movements such those as in Okinawa.

The joint statement is just the beginning of Japan's new military posture and could mean that Japan will become much more closely aligned with and even involved in America's global strategies in the "war against terrorism". It holds major implications for Japan's future, including the amendment of Article 9 of its pacifist constitution in the coming years. The US drafted the current pacifist constitution, but now wants to scrap those pacifism provisions and urge combat by Japan if necessary.

About the Author: Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo.

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