Asiaweek [24 Sep 2002] "Japanese question US security alliance" By Tim Shorrock

September 24, 2002 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Kono Taro, a rising star in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), demonstrates his government's ambivalence on foreign affairs and the US-Japan security alliance.

Speaking at a forum here a few days ago, the son of former foreign minister Yohei Kono argued that Japanese politicians have a duty to explain to their people what the US-Japan security alliance "is doing for Japan" because public support for US bases is "very shallow, very superficial".

This support, he told a forum organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation on September 19, could be threatened by the actions of "one drunken marine in Okinawa or Yokosuka", the areas that host US military facilities.

But aside from guarding Japan's sea lanes around the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, a job held by the US 7th Fleet stationed in Yokosuka, Kono could not provide a clear strategic mission for the 60,000 US troops who have been stationed in Japan since the early days of the Cold War.

Asked about the biggest problem for the alliance, the noisy and disruptive US Marine Corps Air Station in the heart of the crowded Okinawa city of Futenma, Kono went "off the record" to give his views, which conflict with the official Japanese position.

More telling, his rationale for maintaining the alliance "until China becomes a fully democratic country" was immediately contradicted by a senior White House official who advises US President George W Bush on Asia policy.

"China during a democratic process could make the US-Japan alliance more important," said the official, who was identified by name in the Sasakawa program but spoke on background. "The alliance has a logic and merit well beyond what China's future is."

Kono himself seemed to undermine his argument on China when he said that China was "unlikely to invade" Japan. But if China launched a military attack on Taiwan, he was unequivocal that Japan "would back up" US efforts to defend the island.

At the same time, he said the United States and Japan must think about the heavy investments of their firms in China and the fact that many Japanese companies "have shifted their production" to the mainland.

Kono is a strong advocate of United Nations reform and the author of a bill that would force Tokyo to reduce its voluntary contributions to the UN Security Council until it is reformed.

After a career in business, he was elected to Japan's House of Representatives on the LDP ticket in 1996 and re-elected in 2000. Since 2001, he has been director of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Kono is one of the co-founders of a parliamentary group that seeks revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which guides the legal status of US soldiers in Japan. Kono's father was foreign minister during the administration of prime minister Keizo Obuchi.

The younger Kono's frankness in dealing with international issues and Japan' s economic problems are a refreshing change from older generation of LDP leaders, said Andrew Saidel, a former Asia specialist with the Central Intelligence Agency who runs Dynamic Strategies Asia, a private consultancy that helps US companies analyze regulatory and business issues in Japan.

"This is not your father's LDP," Saidel said.

Kono was in Washington during a momentous week in Japanese foreign affairs. On September 17, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made an unprecedented visit to North Korea. During the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Kim made the stunning admission that agents from his country had kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. Kim also agreed to continue Pyongyang's moratorium on missile tests and allow international inspectors to examine its nuclear power program.

Koizumi's diplomacy is likely to spur the Bush administration to open a dialogue with North Korea. On Friday, Koizumi told Japanese reporters that Bush informed him during a telephone call this week that he is "seriously" considering Kim's proposals to begin talks with Washington. Bush may also drop his reference to North Korea as part of the "axis of evil", Koizumi said.

Kono said he was "very surprised" at Kim's admission. "Japan is disappearing in Washington, DC. The prime minister's trip to North Korea keeps Japan alive," he said.

Linking his remarks back to US-Japan security, he said that "because of the alliance, North Korea is now opening the door" to a dialogue with Washington. The thrust of Kono's remarks was that elected Japanese politicians need to take charge of foreign policy from the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Politicians have to take the driver's seat and change Japan," he said.

Noting that Japan has seen six foreign ministers over the past six years, partly as result of tensions between politicians and ministry officials, Kono declared that "politicians shouldn't take their orders from bureaucrats. We should let the bureaucrats take order from politicians."

In a clear break from the foreign-policy bureaucracy, Kono suggested that the rationale for the US-Japan military alliance should change from defending the Japanese homeland from external forces within East Asia to a much wider mission that would incorporate Japan's dependence on Middle East oil and other issues.

That would require changing Article 6 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, which authorizes the United States - but not Japan - to use military facilities in Japan for the peace and security of the region. "We can't limit our security within the Far East," Kono said. "It's not just homeland security or Far East security. Japan's security goes global."

Tokyo's priority should be to strengthen the US-Japan alliance, but with the Cold War a fading memory, more Japanese are questioning the alliance, Kono said. They are asking more and more questions such as why American soldiers are suddenly sent home before their trials for offenses or why US military pilots at Futenma must practice their landings and takeoffs 24 hours a day.

US-Japan differences on the Kyoto Protocol, nuclear disarmament and issues important to the Japanese public make it more difficult to defend the alliance, Kono said.

"We have to find solutions" to these problems, such as transferring US aircraft to airports that see little commercial use, Kono said. As for Futenma, "many Okinawans want the bases there", he said. "We want them to start speaking up."

But Kono, following the LDP's lead, flatly rejected requests by Okinawa lawmakers for a 15-year limit on US military use of Futenma as "not acceptable". Still, there is a "need to answer the Okinawan call for less burdens on them", he said.

(Inter Press Service)