Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned after barely eight months in office. Despite his desire to reduce Washington’s influence over Japanese politics, Hatoyama was forced to back off a major campaign pledge —beginning the process of removing all American military forces from Japan’s Okinawa Island. Already weakened by domestic political scandal, Hatoyama resigned rather than lead his Democratic Party into parliamentary elections next month. He felt that he had lost the confidence of his people after announcing that American forces would indeed be staying on Okinawa (though moving to a more remote location).
So ends the tenure of a man who came to power riding a wave of popularity, promising to lead Japan to a new era of reduced spending and a foreign policy distinct from the United States. He ended Japan’s supportive, non-combat role in the war in Afghanistan. His stated goal was to rebalance Japan’s alliance with the United States, maintaining close ties, perhaps, but under terms less favorable to America.
But now, he has quit, and his replacement has already sought to reassure America that the alliance will remain as-is. The reason for this sudden shift, yanking Japan firmly back into America’s orbit, was explained by a joint statement issued by Tokyo and Washington: “Recent developments in the security environment of Northeast Asia reaffirmed the significance of the Alliance.” Addressing reporters later, Hatoyama went further, saying, “I am painfully aware of the feeling of the people of Okinawa that the present problem of the bases represents unfair discrimination against them. At the same time, the presence of US bases is essential for Japan's security.”
In other words, the North Koreans have rattled the Japanese. A year ago, Japan might have had reason feel comfortable inching away from an America, with the US military stretched and a new, dovish president seeking to avoid confrontations. But now with the North Koreans committing acts of war over and above their usual provocations, the Japanese have decided they’d rather keep their powerful friend around, after all. America’s military faces an uncertain future during these times of fiscal duress and while the Democrats control both the White House and Congress, but the fact remains that it is still the world’s best fighting force. Hatoyama, despite his earlier hopes of building a new Japan free of American protection and influence, has been forcefully reminded of just how dangerous a place the world can be.
The American presence on Okinawa Island, while essential for Japanese security in these turbulent times, is understandably an inconvenience for the local population. Okinawa is small but densely populated: 1.3 million Japanese live on it, along with 25,000 Marines, plus their support staff and families. The forces housed on Okinawa represent fully half of the US forces stationed in Japan. In 1995, three Marines kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl. They were tried and sentenced to long prison terms, but the relationship between the US forces and the local Japanese population never recovered. When you factor in the petty crime, noise, pollution and crowding inherent to any large military force, it is easy to understand that the local civilians might resent the base. But the Marines’ presence on Okinawa, setting aside such extremely rare incidents as the above-mentioned rape, is merely that — an inconvenience. America’s support for Japan, in light of an aggressive North Korean regime capable of easily striking Japan, is a political and pragmatic necessity.
The Japanese are not the only allies of the United States in the region to suddenly rediscover how beneficial a strong relationship with America can be. South Korea, the victim of North Korea’s unprovoked attack, has enjoyed a long history of close defense relations with the United States, dating back to the Korean War itself, which saw American-led allied forces protect South Korea from North Korea communist forces, backed by Beijing and Moscow. For several years, however, the United States and South Korea have been working towards a transfer of control of all forces — including American — to South Korea. America has almost 30,000 troops in the South, but the South has a 600,000-man army. Under the new arrangement, the American troops would have taken all a supporting role.
Since North Korea’s attack, however, South Korea’s defense community has become determined to delay the transfer of command. They do not want America to move into a supporting role — if war comes, they want to make very certain that US forces lead the charge against the numerically strong but technologically backwards North Korean military. The South Korean president is being pressured to invoke a clause in his country’s alliance with the United States that would delay the planned 2012 handover of command to South Korea. Meanwhile, the utility of the alliance is being clearly demonstrated: despite the predictable outrage from the North, the United States plans to join South Korea in naval exercises in the weeks and months ahead, demonstrating the close relationship and military prowess of the allies to the troubled North. There has also been discussion of sending an American carrier battle group, and its awesome firepower, to the region to impress upon the North Koreans the wisdom of choosing a more peaceful course of action.
No decision to deploy the carrier has yet been made public, but the message is clear. For Japan and South Korea, the world can be a dangerous place. And in such a world, you can ask for no better friend than the United States of America.
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 protected].