US-Japan 'cornerstone alliance' stuck in a rut

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 April, 2009, 12:00am

Despite the recent high-sounding diplomatic rhetoric, the US-Japan alliance is in the doldrums. It's not so much that there are strains between both sides; more that security relations are listless.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Tokyo in February, she said the alliance is 'a cornerstone of our foreign policy'. Later that month, President Barack Obama welcomed Prime Minister Taro Aso to the White House, saying: 'The friendship between the United States and Japan is extraordinarily important to our country.'

The Japanese ambassador to the US, Ichiro Fujisaki, defended Japan's contributions last month, noting Japan would host an international conference this month to promote economic aid to Afghanistan, where Japan is paying the salaries of 80,000 Afghan policemen for six months.

Privately, however, those engaged in maintaining the alliance point to several corrosive elements:

Japan's political roller coaster: Since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down as prime minister in September 2006, Japan has had three leaders - Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and the incumbent, Mr Aso - and six defence ministers. Much of Mr Koizumi's initiative in the realm of security went out with him. Moreover, Japan must hold parliamentary elections by September, with both leading parties in disarray.

Defence dissatisfaction: US officers, usually understanding of the political and budgetary constraints under which Japanese officers must operate, have privately become impatient. 'The Japanese didn't pull their weight,' said one officer about Japanese troops recently opting out of the annual Cobra Gold manoeuvres alongside US, Thai and Singaporean troops in northern Thailand.

Japan has been slow, compared with China and European nations, to send warships to the Gulf of Aden to fend off Somali pirates.

An exception has been missile defence, in which Japan has done more than other allies to invest in ships, sensors and computers, to train with US forces, and to plan to respond to potential threats from North Korea and China.

In Washington, the president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, John Hamre, told Japanese journalists: 'If Japan reduces its commitment to the alliance with the US, it needs to seriously face up to security challenges in the region.'

Dr Hamre said Japan would need to raise defence spending to 3 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with 1 per cent now: 'Japan will face the issue of nuclear arms ... as there is a nuclear threat by North Korea and China.'

Noting that some Japanese, led by the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Ichiro Ozawa, have called on the US to withdraw all but its naval forces from Japan, Dr Hamre said: 'The navy alone, or the air force, or the army alone will not create the fundamental security foundation.' A withdrawal of US troops 'would create a distance and a vacuum between the two nations'.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington