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Mr. Hatoyama’s successor, Mr. Naoto Kan, has done more than just accept the existing arrangements on Okinawa. He has explicitly, publicly endorsed the role the United States plays in guaranteeing Japan’s security in an unfriendly world. In September, there was an incident at sea between a Japanese coast guard patrol vessel and a Chinese fishing trawler. The coast guard ship was attempting to turn back the trawler, which was fishing in disputed waters, when the vessels collided. The Japanese crew detained the complement of the Chinese vessel and arrested the captain (the others were sent home). After an escalating diplomatic crisis, with ambassadors being summoned and trade threats levied, Japan eventually released the Chinese captain, but refused China’s demand to pay compensation for the incident. The diplomatic fallout of the incident has not yet been fully dealt with.
Nor is China the only Japanese neighbor causing Tokyo grief. Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited an island captured by Soviet forces during the Second World War. The island is still claimed by Japan, and the status of it and several other small territories taken by the Red Army in August of 1945 has never been settled by treaty. Japan considered the visit by the Russian leader provocative, of course, and the blunt Russian response could not have helped matters. The Russians declared that they would visit the territory, which they consider to belong to Russia, at any time they chose, and that they hoped Japan would show a “more appropriate” attitude concerning the matter in the future. Japan got that message loud and clear: Russia means a stance more appropriate to a weaker nation, incapable of defending itself against the likes of China or Russia.
Faced with two powerful neighbors and an unstable North Korean dictatorship, Japan has done the sensible thing — stepped closer to its traditional ally and trading partner. At the G20 Summit in South Korea, the Japanese Prime Minister was overtly positive when discussing America’s friendship. “I thanked [President Obama] for continued U.S. support while there are some issues over China and Russia,” Kan said. “I told him that the Japanese people as well as our neighbors recognized that the US military presence is all the more important for the peace and security of this region.”
The United States is facing some unparalleled struggles today. A spend-happy government in a time of economic crisis, two ongoing wars and now, with an incoming Republican House majority set to deadlock Washington, political stalemate for at least the next two years are all looming issues. But America, even while weakened, remains awesomely powerful. Her military and diplomatic might remain world leading. Japan has finally remembered that. It’s a safe bet that Russia and China know it, as well.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @mattgurney.
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