By John Pomfret and Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 11:24 AM
TOKYO - Worried about North Korean belligerence and an increasingly aggressive China, Japan's military wants to cooperate in unprecedented ways with the United States and is even considering putting its military in the line of fire in areas outside Japan, Japanese defense officials said Thursday.
In an interview, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said Japan was studying ways to provide U.S. forces with logistical support in case of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Japan is also interested, he said, in determining how it can launch missions to evacuate civilians from the peninsula as part of efforts to support a U.S. mission.
In subsequent briefings Thursday, Japanese defense officials acknowledged that such maneuvers could put Japanese troops in harm's way. If attacked, they said, Japanese forces would fight back, which would necessitate more and deeper training with the United States and perhaps South Korea to ensure against casualties from friendly fire.
"The basic principle of Japan is to pursue peace," Kitazawa said, referring to Japan's constitution, which limits its military to the defense of Japan. "But we also need to have measures to avoid being left behind."
Kitazawa's statements, made during a visit by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to Japan, underscore a significant improvement in relations between the United States and Japan since the last time Gates visited this country - in October 2009. They also highlight a significant risk that Japan is taking, moving to bolster its military profile in a region with strong memories of World War II.
In October 2009, Gates was gruff with his hosts, telling them to it was "time to move on" with a controversial plan to build a new facility on Okinawa in exchange for the Marine Corps vacating the Futenma air base located in the middle of a city of 80,000. But Thursday, Gates described ties with Tokyo as "very healthy and on a positive track," and he went so far as to acknowledge that the multibillion-dollar base relocation scheme is "politically a complex matter" as he pledged to "follow the lead of the Japanese government" in solving the problem.
Gates came to Japan from China, where he had an eventful three-day visit punctuated by the first test flight of China's stealth fighter. Chinese officials told Gates that the test was not meant to reflect insensitivity toward his visit, which was aimed at restoring high-level military ties with Beijing. But the test flight was seen as an unprecedented statement nonetheless.
Starting in August 2009, U.S. relations with Japan faced an enormous challenge with the election of an opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan. It ousted the Liberal Democratic Party, which had run Japan almost without interruption since the 1950s. The DPJ came into office with new ideas about moving closer to China and wanting to be a more equal partner with the United States.
First on the DPJ's agenda with Washington was the Futenma air base program - a multibillion-dollar scheme that involved relocating the Marine Corps air station to a more isolated spot on the island of Okinawa while simultaneously moving thousands of Marines to Guam. The prime minister at the time, Yukio Hatoyama, had run on a platform of opposing the base deal, which U.S. and Japanese negotiators had been working on since 1996. Hatoyama demanded an investigation.
But Hatoyama, after intense U.S. pressure, pledged on May 28 to carry out the Futenma deal, although he provided no timetable. Soon after, he quit and was replaced as prime minister by the generally more pro-American Naoto Kan.
At the same time, thanks to increasingly aggressive moves by China and continued provocations by North Korea, the DPJ's strategic thinking shifted back toward Washington. In the space of several months, China dispatched a naval convoy through Japanese waters and buzzed two Japanese warships with its helicopters. A Chinese fishing vessel rammed Japanese coast guard cutters off the shores of a disputed island chain. When Japan arrested the Chinese fishing captain, China erupted in a paroxysm of anger that essentially forced Japan to release him.
Significantly at the time, U.S. officials put China on notice that the United States viewed the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyu island chain as covered by the Article 5 military assistance clause of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
North Korea, meanwhile, was widely believed to have been responsible for sinking a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors. North Korea also shelled a South Korean island in November, killing two civilians and two soldiers, in one of the most serious attacks on the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
"Concerns about China and North Korea have made us realize that this relationship with the U.S. cannot go ragged," said Koichiro Katsumata, a rising star in the DPJ and a member of Japan's House of Representatives.
In his five months as foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, an advocate for closer ties with Washington, has met four times with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Meanwhile, responding to U.S. pressure, Japan has also moved to improve military relations with South Korea. During a visit to Japan and South Korea in December, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed the two countries to accelerate security cooperation. He urged them not to be "hung up on what's happened in the past," a reference to the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of Korea.
On Monday, Kitazawa and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, met in Seoul and agreed to work toward two accords - to pool intelligence and to support each other's operations with logistical help.
Kitazawa also said he expected more changes in Japan as well.
Given China's recent test flight of what appears to be a fifth-generation stealth fighter, Japan, too, is interested in obtaining such technology, he said, either by purchasing it from the United States or by helping to produce it. He also intimated that the government would drop its regulations banning the export of weapons or weapons-related hardware. If Japan worked with the United States on developing a new system, it would have to be prepared to sell it around the world.
Still, Kitazawa added, Japan was not interested in "becoming a country that exports lots of military equipment, thereby becoming a merchant of death."
Kitazawa said Japan's government is already studying a plan to allow for the export of SM-3 [Standard Missile-3] Block IIA missiles to Europe as part of the Obama administration's plans to deploy a missile defense shield there. And Japan, press reports here said, is also considering becoming the first non-NATO nation to build a separate military facility in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti as part of its efforts in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.
"With the help from China and [North Korea], the DPJ has stopped daydreaming, and its security policy seems to be getting more realistic," said Kuni Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and now the research director for the Canon Institute for Global Studies.