Japan, deputy sheriff?

Washington's desire to use the country as a command post for operations extending to the Middle East, and tensions with China, have Tokyo rethinking its notions of pacifism.

Published April 19, 2005 1:41PM (EDT)

Escalating tension with China, violently illustrated by renewed anti-Japanese protests in Shanghai and other big cities over the weekend, is increasing pressure on Tokyo to expand its military capabilities and back a deepening strategic alliance with the United States reaching from East Asia to the Gulf.

Japan's pacifist postwar Constitution restricts its armed forces to self-defense. About 50,000 U.S. troops in Okinawa and other bases guarantee the country's security in return for a $5 billion Japanese cash contribution. But defense analysts say the perceived Chinese threat, a more assertive, nationalistic Japanese mindset, and Washington's wish to use Japan as a command post for operations extending to the Middle East are transforming Japan's formerly semidetached defense posture. After 60 years largely spent keeping its head down, Japan appears destined to supplant Australia as Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region and become a pillar of America's 21st century security architecture.

According to Kazuya Sakamoto of Osaka University, Japan and Britain are central to a far-reaching, post-9/11 U.S. review of its overseas force deployments. "The basic idea is that the U.S. will gradually withdraw from the Eurasian landmass while assigning the two island nations at the east and west of Eurasia, Japan and Britain, even greater importance as strategic bases to ensure stability in Europe and Asia," Professor Sakamoto writes in the current issue of Japan Echo magazine.

An important element in this transformation fell into place last week when Japan agreed in principle to allow the command headquarters of the U.S. Army's 1st Corps to transfer from Washington state, on the U.S. Pacific coast, to Camp Zama, near Yokohama, south of Tokyo.

The 1st Corps has responsibility for operations in the Pacific and Indian oceans, extending to the conflict zones and oil fields of the Gulf. The primary focus of its forward deployment is likely to be the defense of Taiwan, regional challenges posed by China's military expansion and the nuclear standoff with North Korea. But the United States has also reportedly proposed that command operations of the 13th Air Force, now on Guam in the Pacific -- a base for long-range bombers and tanker aircraft frequently deployed in the Middle East -- be moved to Yokota Air Base in Tokyo.

"The ramifications of this would be that Japan would essentially serve as a front-line U.S. command post for the Asia-Pacific and beyond," said Christopher Hughes of Warwick University in a paper published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The American forward deployments are certain to be viewed with suspicion in China and farther afield -- and face political opposition in Japan. The U.S.-Japan security treaty states that U.S. bases may only be used "for the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the far east." It says nothing, for example, about Iran.

But Hughes said that since Japan had given the United States a free hand to use its bases for previous Middle East operations, Tokyo "might have to accept its enhanced role as a fulcrum for U.S. military commands."

Japan's worries about China are the main reason for acquiescing in U.S. plans that effectively shatter any remaining pacifist illusions. But Tokyo is in any case growing more militarily assertive under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Japan sent noncombat troops to Iraq, while its navy has joined the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. Military cooperation with Australia, South Korea and Southeast Asian states is developing.

Japan is acquiring a ballistic missile defense system and new satellite intelligence capabilities. It has pledged to help keep the peace in Taiwan. And there has even been talk of preemptive strikes against North Korea and a Japanese nuclear deterrent. In short, Japan, emerging from the shadow of its past, is again becoming a military power with a global role and hopes of a permanent U.N. Security Council seat.

China's actions may thereby be more easily explained. But further demonstrations of hostility will only exacerbate the slide toward an Asian cold war.

By Simon Tisdall

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