A spat over the future of a US military base in Japan has strained ties between Tokyo and Washington but analysts say it is unlikely to cause permanent damage to an alliance both sides value highly.
A new center-left government took power in Japan in August after half a century of conservative rule, pledging to review past agreements on the US military presence and to deal with Washington on a more “equal” basis.
US President Barack Obama’s administration initially welcomed Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, but voiced irritation when his Cabinet announced it may scrap the previously agreed relocation of Futenma airbase on Okinawa.
“This issue has not been well managed on either side,” said Robert Dujarric, a Japan expert at Temple University in Tokyo.
“There is a lot of frustration in the Pentagon towards Japan ... but this is not a major issue for the Obama administration,” he said. “The bases are useful for Japan but also for the United States, and Futenma is not worth a rupture of the alliance between the two countries.”
Hatoyama’s stated preference is to move the Futenma base off Okinawa or even outside Japan altogether, breaching an agreement signed in 2006 between previous conservative governments in Washington and Tokyo.
Since its defeat in World War II, officially pacifist Japan has relied on a massive US military presence to guarantee its security, initially as an occupier and later as an ally.
But the dispute over Futenma has raised fears among Japanese that the alliance might cool at a time a rising China is making its presence felt across Asia.
Jean-Vincent Brisset, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris, says Washington is unlikely to abandon its ally, despite recent tensions.
“The US needs Japan’s ‘unsinkable aircraft-carrier,’” he said, referring to the name sometimes given to Okinawa, which is home to more than half of the 47,000 US forces stationed in Japan.
“They know that China one day may trigger a conflict and that most probably it will at first be a naval conflict,” said Brisset, a former general. “For the US army, the bases in Japan are forward deployments in case of a regional conflict. They would also protect Japan if the Chinese or the North Koreans attacked the archipelago. It would mean an attack against the United States that would trigger an automatic response.”
Tim Huxley, an Asia expert at the Institute of International Strategic Studies in Singapore, said the US military presence in Japan provides a mental fillip to Washington’s allies and suits the Pentagon well.
“Having forces in the region — not just troops, but also navy and air force units and personnel — provides psychological reassurance to US allies and security partners, while providing important logistic support that would be vital for launching and sustaining large-scale operations,” he said.
Huxley said the US military presence “is important to the US and serves Washington’s interests in the region by facilitating the projection of US power in East Asia. This capacity would be crucial in the event of regional crises — for example, relating to Taiwan or Korea. “America would be doing less, less convincingly, if it relied only on aircraft carriers.”
Huxley said that if one day Japan decides to rely on its own Self-Defense Forces, “it would need to increase its defense effort considerably, possibly causing alarm in other parts of Asia, particularly China and Korea, and sparking a regional arms race.”
Dujarric said it is in the interests of the Obama administration to give Hatoyama some time to find a solution on Futenma.
He said Tokyo needed the space to resolve the base question in a way that was acceptable to those who object to the strong US presence in the country if the young government is to thrive.
“This government is the best hope of a revival of Japan since a very long time ago,” he said. “If the Futenma issue ends badly, Hatoyama’s position will be weakened.”
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