Threat props up Japan-US alliance

Suvendrini Kakuchi

By pledging US support for efforts to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, visiting President Bush, on Wednesday, hinted at the importance of the alliance in countering Japan’s biggest security threat and also in tackling troubles elsewhere. Bush made his pledge at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Kyoto. Bush made the right noises by saying that the US continued to support Japan’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. The stalemate in the latest round of bilateral talks with North Korea, earlier this month, has added to the crisis in Japan with families of the abducted calling for more pressure on Pyongyang, including economic sanctions, to force a settlement. North Korea has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s with the intention of training them for espionage. While five abductees have returned to Japan, the fate of the other eight is uncertain, as also of three other missing persons.

Wednesday’s summit is important for Koizumi who has bent backwards to accommodate the US leader’s global campaign against terrorism by sending Japan’s Self Defence Forces to Iraq. He is painfully aware of the difficulties of garnering public support for the deployment and for new Japan-US military realignment plans over the next six years that involves expansion of US bases in Japan. Under the new alliance, Camp Zama, US military base in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, will be turned into one of the largest US bases in the world with a new command organisation from the US mainland, stationed side by side with the SDF, and commanding US military forces, including army, navy and air force elements.

Analysts contend the base relocation pledges and the highlighting of Japan’s security interests, especially with regard to North Korea, represent a clever strategy that puts the US bases issues straight on the table. Indeed, the new blueprint for strengthening Japan-US military activities, signed in October, is promoted as the best response to maintain security in the “arc of instability”, that stretches from Far East to the Middle East. Koizumi is scheduled to visit Washington in January 2006 for further talks on security that includes several new drastic developments, such as a military role for Japan’s SDF in the US-led global war on terrorism and the stationing of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Japan for the first time by 2008.

Also to be discussed is the passage of a new Japanese constitution that paves the way for accepting a military role for the first time since Japan’s defeat in 1945 ending World War ll. ‘’If the agreement materialises, peace will certainly be guaranteed in Asia and the entire world for a number of decades to come,” opined Hisahiko Okhazaki, a former diplomat and security analyst. But critics say the Bush visit served as a reminder of how deeply dependent Japan is on the US on the one hand and how Koizumi is one of the few good friends Bush has in the world on the other. Peace activists acknowledge the going is getting tough in Japan where the traditional pacifist leanings of the people appear weakening in the face of the growing military power of China, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and the unresolved kidnappings.