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POLITICS: Japan-U.S. Pact Crucial to Balance of Power in East Asia

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jun 1 2010 (IPS) - A clumsy and failed attempt by Japan’s nine-month-old coalition government to change the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, a post World War II landmark in bilateral relations after the Japanese defeat and often referred to as the lynchpin in Asian regional defence, has shaken domestic politics and fueled East Asian anxiety.

Analysts predict tough times for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, seen to culminate in his resignation on Wednesday, after he stumbled and sparked a political storm when he tried to move a controversial U.S marine base stationed in Okinawa.

Public support for Hatoyama’s democratic socialist government slid to 17 percent Monday, an ominous sign of disastrous results in the Upper House elections in July.

On the international front, analysts see Japan’s political mess spilling into disastrous regional consequences as Japan and the United States struggle to come to a satisfactory conclusion amid domestic anger over Okinawa and a tinderbox situation for U.S. troops facing violence in Afghanistan.

“I would describe the situation in East Asia as dangerous and uncertain,” said international relations expert Takeshi Inoguchi of University of Niigata, a leading foreign studies institution.

Inoguchi was referring to heightened alertness in East Asia after South Korea and Japan decided to take stern action against North Korea, which has reacted with its characteristic dogmatism by threatening war even as evidence emerged that it had carried out the sinking of a South Korean warship in March near the maritime border with the authoritarian regime.

China, a key player in Asian security, is the lone supporter of the North and is not throwing its weight behind South Korea.

Other issues creating tense regional relations include Chinese military activities in Japanese waters that have, for the moment, been smoothed in an agreement forged on Monday to pursue further talks between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and Hatoyama during the former’s visit to Tokyo this week.

Inoguchi said it is difficult to predict what will happen next. An unfortunate confluence of factors, namely, “Japan’s weak leadership,” the anticipated victory of the opposition in South Korea’s local elections on Wednesday, and Chinese reports of local labour and rural unrest turning into a headache for Beijing, “can only mean a more explosive East Asia,” he said.

Last week Hatoyama fired cabinet minister Mizuho Fukushima, leader of a small leftist party, after she refused to sign a document approving the relocation of the Futenma U.S. military air base to a less crowded part of Okinawa, citing it was against the party’s campaign pledge.

Professor Masao Okonogi, an expert on the Korean peninsula, said the ongoing political crisis has turned the spotlight once again on the future of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which has long been a thorny issue on the domestic front and a relentless quagmire for Japanese governments.

“Any attempt to change the bilateral military alliance, which the Japanese public thinks is unfair, signals a treacherous path for governments as you can see from what is happening now,” he said.

The Japan-U.S. military alliance allows Japan to defend itself from foreign invasion but prevents it from participating in an attack. In addition, Japan is host to the largest number of U.S. military and naval bases in Asia, where they are heavily involved in U.S.-led wars in the region.

Japan’s defence policy views the Treaty as crucial to efforts to forestall threats posed by North Korea and China, which are seen as potential dangers to Japan’s national security.

But China and North Korea view the military pact between Japan and the United States as a throwback to Cold War diplomacy.

Analysts say any hopes the Japanese public may have had to push for a more equal military alliance with Washington have been dashed as tensions grow and the lack of leadership on the domestic front leaves little room for meaningful negotiation.

Professor Akira Kato, an international politics expert at Obirin University, said an equal alliance with the United States would mean allowing Japan to rearm itself.

Japan has a formidable Self Defence Force (SDF) that cannot be officially named a military under its postwar pacifist Constitution.

A tortuous change enacted in the Japan-U.S. Security Pact two decades ago now permits, among other stipulations, the Japanese SDF to participate in operations with the U.S. security forces stationed in the country.

But leftist political parties such as the Social Democratic Party, which has abandoned the ruling coalition over policy disagreements, calls for the opposite. Its policy is to “scale down the SDF and transform the bilateral Security Pact into peace and goodwill.”

Analysts say such foreign policy row is one pressing reason why the Japanese platform, such as what is identified with the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, remains shaky in terms of negotiating for a better deal with the United States over U.S. base relocation.

“With political and public opinion divided, the looming insecurity in East Asia and Japan’s shaky politics, the Japan-U.S. security treaty continues to play a fundamental role in Asian security with all its other implications,” said Obirin University’s Kato.

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