Japan Gets Smart

Even a troubled America is good to have in your corner.

How do you say, “Never mind, we take it back” in Japanese?

President Obama almost certainly found out during his recent trip to Asia. The four-country tour of America’s allies and trading partners in the region, based around the timing of the G20 Summit in South Korea, included stops in India, Japan, Indonesia and, of course, the G20 host country. Whether or not the trip was productive in terms of helping further along the economic recovery so desperately needed in the United States and throughout Asia, only time will tell. But what is already apparent is that Japan, a long-standing U.S. ally that had of late become suspicious of her protector, has fully re-embraced its alliance with America.

How quickly things can change. It was just over a year ago that the Democratic Party of Japan took power, promising to deliver a new era of leadership to a Japan that had become less concerned with the pacifism of previous generations, more eager to develop a foreign policy distinct from the United States. America’s power was not denied, per se, but it was balanced against an increasingly powerful China. Japan under the DPoJ, and its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, would balance its interests between America’s traditional dominance of the Western Pacific and the rise of China, particularly the rapid expansion of China’s naval power.

A key part in the Japanese break with America its desire to close, or at least relocate, the enormous Marine Corps base America has fielded on the Japanese island of Okinawa since the Second World War. The base has long been an irritant to the Japanese; it is loud, crowded and brings with it the problems that occur whenever a large body of military age men gather in one place — drunkenness, petty crime, fistfights, and, tragically, several well-publicized incidents of sexual assault by U.S. servicemen against Japanese civilians. The desire of the people of Okinawa to have the enormous military base in the middle of their bustling city moved or closed was understandable, but Mr. Hatoyama reached too far when he sought to make the removal of the base a key foreign policy goal.

After North Korean forces launched their unprovoked sneak attack against the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors (one rescuer would later drown while diving down to the wreck), Japan quickly realized that having a powerful ally with formidable naval forces at the ready is a good thing when confronting a paranoid, heavily armed Stalinist dictatorship such as North Korea. North Korea, which has a small arsenal of atomic weapons, has in the past fired long-range missiles over Japanese territory while conducting missile tests, an incredibly provocative act given Japan’s unique position as the only country in history to have sustained a nuclear attack.

Japan quickly backed off its insistence that the Marine Corps base at Okinawa be closed, and agreed that for the foreseeable future, the American presence would remain (though options to relocate some or all of the forces to another part of the island are being looked into). The decision proved fatal to Mr. Hatoyama’s political career. He resigned in the weeks after the announcement. He had been in power only eight months, and despite his calls for a rebalanced relationship with America and closer ties to China, left Japan as close to America as ever.

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 protected] and on Twitter @mattgurney.