A new turn in the U.S.-Japan alliance?


Obscured by the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-threat tragedy, and Mideast crises, there have been subtle Western Pacific geopolitical shifts.

With little publicity in U.S. [or for that matter, the left-leaning Japanese mainstream] media, American military forces played a magnificent role in rescue and early clean-up of the Japanese tsunami.

Grotesquely incompetent Japanese politicians – at any moment there may be another revolting door prime minister – have obscured this along with their studied refusal to honor their own high-performing Self Defense Forces. This is the ruling Democratic Party of Japan [DPJ] core recruited from a 60s generation vociferously opposed to the American alliance and reconstitution of a civilian led Japanese military. It’s taken three years of provocation by Beijing – now seemingly at least temporarily abated – to force full recognition of the growing threat posed by a rapidly arming China, and its obstreperous North Korea ally.

In sharp contrast was the public’s stoic response to 30,000 lives lost with destruction of whole towns and villages. But a 15.3% factory output drop has imperiled Japan’s “just on time” internationally linked export assemblies. Already a ¥4 trillion [$50 billion] extra budget has been voted. Japan’s central bank has doubled its asset-purchases, injected record amounts into money markets and unveiled a one-year lending program.

It’s early to know whether the tragedy will reawaken “yamato damashii!” – that remarkable ethos to overcome adversity characterizing Japan since its rapid emergence as a world power beginning only 150 years ago. But recuperating the $300 billion loss might reinvigorate the world’s third largest economy suffering two decades of deflation. Prejudicing this hope, of course, is the rating agencies’ downgrading of the huge and growing government debt [if held almost exclusively in yen at low rates], the most rapidly ageing and declining population in the industrialized world, and lack of dynamic leadership.

Much depends on whether growing internal strife within the JDP will produce a long hoped for political realignment introducing younger blood and new ideas. Luckily, the JDP’s campaign against Japan’s powerful bureaucracy has been mostly talk. In fact the legendary bureaucrats performed well in this unprecedented emergency – certainly compared with corrupt utilities management in bed with the politicians.

Backed by public appreciation of American efforts and repeated Chinese provocations – the latest an attempt to corner the rare earths markets on which Japan’s movement toward advanced technology so heavily depends – muffled calls have arisen for strengthening the U.S. alliance. Tokyo’s concern is enhanced by Taiwan’s new formal economic integration with Mainland China and the possibility political domination could follow despite Pres. Ma Ying Jeou’s protestations to the contrary. [Ironically, Taiwan, whose native islanders have fond memories of the relatively benign Japanese 50-year occupation, 1895-45, made the largest contributions after the U.S. to disaster aid.] Tokyo has always seen Taiwan as critically strategic to its defense. And the Obama Administration’s continued foot-dragging on weapons for Taipei has certainly been noted even as they constitute a major issue between Washington and Beijing.

Any expansion of Japanese-U.S. military collaboration will come up against both countries’ budgetary constraints. Rapid American technological progress – with Japan as a junior partner especially in anti-missile defense — could compensate partially for more cutbacks likely in military spending by U.S. Secretary of Defense-designate Leon Panetta, noted for his dovish views.

But this confluence of events has led to whispered speculation the expensive – and strategically dubious — U.S. Marine move from Japan’s southern island of Okinawa to Guam might be shelved. That Marine “fire brigades” could arrive within two hours off the quake area operating from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was demonstration of why the Ryukyus chain historically has played such an important role.

This year’s just approved military construction contains another $246 million, added to a $1.2 billion down payment already appropriated, on an estimated $4 billion for transferring 8,600 U.S. Marines from Okinawa. The Japanese government has pledged another $6 billion.

To halt the plan, Tokyo would have to confront local opposition to Okinawa facilities expansion, difficult for the DPJ with its leftwing constituencies. But even if a U.S. diplomat was fired recently for saying so publicly, the Okinawans’ half century blackmail of both Tokyo and Washington is wearing thin. A stronger Tokyo team might just call their bluff, cancel the Guam transfer, and put those yen into reconstruction, producing welcome savings for Japanese — and American — taxpayers. Only a hint of a rainbow on the horizon but…

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