Tue, Oct 02, 2007 - Page 9 News List

US, Japan have no choice but to work together

The most prominent Japanese opposition figure seems willing to jeopardize the US alliance for political gain

By Richard Halloran

Searching conversations with Japanese diplomats, politicians, officials, academics, business executives and journalists in Japan and the US over the last several years have almost always led to the same conclusion: When it comes to national security, Japan has no choice but to nurture its alliance with the US.

Confronted with a North Korea armed with missiles and nuclear weapons, anxious about a possible long-term threat from China, worried about a resurgent Russia, and concerned over barely concealed hostility from South Korea, the Japanese said they could turn only to the US.

"We want to have a more independent foreign policy," said an influential journalist, adding in the next breath, "but only in the context of our alliance with America."

Even Japanese efforts to reach out to other democracies in Australia and India are within the framework of the alliance with the US.

On the other side, a number of opposite numbers in the US who are well versed in the security issues of Asia assert that the US has no choice but to rely on Japan as its main ally in Asia. And like Japan, the US has been reaching out to Australia and India to buttress its security posture in Asia.

critical partner

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chief of naval operations who is about to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington this week that Japan was a "very critical partner." He said he had found Japanese officers sharing his "uncertainty" over China's military investments but was encouraged by recent joint maritime operations with Japan and India.

The central question today is whether new Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and his most prominent opponent, Ichiro Ozawa, understand this fundamental reality. My guess is that Fukuda does understand and is prepared to act accordingly. Ozawa also appears to understand but is willing to jeopardize the alliance as he seeks domestic political advantage.

Among his first acts after taking office this week, Fukuda spoke with US President George W. Bush by telephone and arranged an early visit to Washington, possibly next month. Kyodo News reported that Fukuda told Bush he would seek to have Japanese ships continue dispensing fuel to US and allied vessels in the Indian Ocean beyond Nov. 1, when their legal authority is to expire.

Ozawa opposes that deployment even though earlier he was seen as an advocate of the alliance with the US. He was the author of a book, Blueprint for a New Japan, in which he argued that Japan should become a "normal nation" taking a responsible role in international relations. He has now cynically turned that on its head as he seeks to obstruct the new prime minister.

The rivalry between Ozawa and Fukuda goes back a generation. Ozawa's political mentor, the late prime minister Kakuei Tanaka, who served from 1972 to 1974, and Fukuda's father, Takeo Fukuda, who was prime minister from 1976 to 1978, were fierce rivals -- and political memories in Japan are long.

old-fashioned

The conventional wisdom emanating from Tokyo holds that Fukuda was unenthusiastic about running for prime minister, that he lacks the experience to excel, and that he seems to be a dull, old-fashioned politician.

But Fukuda won the party election, which made him prime minister, rather handily.

He showed considerable political skill in pulling together his party's factions, the key operating units in Japanese politics. Fukuda may have learned that from his father, who had an uncanny grasp of the intricacies of Japanese political practices. Moreover, Fukuda was chief Cabinet secretary from 2000 to 2004.

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