Japanese turmoil is message for America

July 21, 1998|By Jim Mann

WASHINGTON -- Nothing's going to change. Nothing's going to change. Honest. Everything's fine. Go back to sleep.

That was going to be the message of Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's visit to Washington this week. President Clinton was going to give the prime minister a big dinner, tell him he's more handsome than Chinese President Jiang Zemin and proclaim America's alliance with Japan to be as smooth-running and repair-free as a Toyota Camry.

Whoops.

An alliance threatened

The June 12 vote by Japanese citizens upset these calculations. Mr. Hashimoto is out. His visit to Washington is off. And the Clinton administration is left wondering whether political changes in Tokyo might lead, eventually, to an erosion of the security ties between Japan and the United States.

In the months before the Japanese elections, several visitors from Mr. Hashimoto's Liberal Democratic Party had made the rounds in Washington carrying a quiet message: We're your guys, America. We're the ones who can preserve and extend the military links between our two countries.

Over the past two years, with Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hashimoto taking the lead, Washington and Tokyo had worked out an expansion of the security treaty between the two countries. The two governments worked out new defense guidelines under which Japan agreed to increase its support of U.S. forces.

Yet these guidelines have not been finally approved in Tokyo. The authorizing legislation is still pending before the Diet or parliament.

One bill would allow the Japanese government to help U.S. forces during emergencies by providing fuel, medical help, transportation and other services. Another would authorize Japanese defense forces to use weapons over a broader area, extending beyond Japan's home islands.

"This is controversial legislation, and the LDP was saying [in Washington] that they needed to have a big win [in the June 12 elections] in order to get it through," said Michael Mochizuki, a specialist on Japan at the Brookings Institution.

The United States maintains more than 40,000 troops on U.S. bases in Japan. The American forces have been on Japanese soil for so long that many in this country think of them as a permanent fixture.

But not everyone in Japan is as supportive of the American presence as LDP politicians such as Mr. Hashimoto. Open this month's issue of Foreign Affairs magazine and you will find an article by Morihiro Hosokawa titled, "Are U.S. Troops in Japan Needed?"

Mr. Hosokawa was Japan's prime minister in 1993-1994, the last time there was a brief rebellion in that country against the dominance of the LDP. Mr. Clinton remembers him well: Mr. Hosokawa was the Japanese leader who showed up at the very first summit of Asian leaders in Seattle, wearing a natty scarf that nearly upstaged Mr. Clinton's bomber jacket.

"The U.S. military presence in Japan should fade with this century's end," wrote Mr. Hosokawa, who fell from power the next year. He favors keeping the military alliance with the United States, but without the bases and troops that now come along with it.

Polls show that many Japanese favor at least some changes along these lines. "There may be little support in Japan for a total U.S. pullout, but there is strong support, definitely a majority, for a reduction in U.S. forces in Japan," Mr. Mochizuki said.

In the short run, the Japanese election results may not have much impact on America's military bases in Japan. The next prime minister will be another LDP politician, probably someone more old-fashioned and traditional than Mr. Hashimoto himself. And the new leader may still be able to win legislative approval of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines.

Japan's Democratic Party, the biggest winners in the recent elections, may in the end be more supportive of Japan's alliance with the United States than were the Social Democrats, who until recently were part of the governing coalition.

Changes in the air

Still, the elections, by demonstrating populist sentiment against the LDP, Japan's dominant party, could be a sign that changes are coming to the U.S.-Japan alliance over a longer period of time.

The Clinton administration's line is that the results were a strong signal to Japanese leaders that they need to do something about the stagnant economy. But the elections also hold a message for U.S. leaders: They should think harder about the future of the U.S. bases in Japan.

Over the past year, administration officials have begun to acknowledge, quietly, that the United States might eventually scale back significantly on its forces in Japan. Yet they caution that this won't happen soon.

"Will there be a drawdown [in Japan]? Probably, but we need to get through the [changes in the] Korean Peninsula first, and that could be 10 years off," observed one senior administration official recently. In the meantime, he suggested, North Korea's economic crisis could lead to major political upheavals there.

The long-standing American view of Japan is that of Zbigniew Brzezinski, once President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. In his recent book, "Grand Chessboard," he wrote that Japan amounts to "an American protectorate."

Voters speak

The June 12 election results were a reminder that Japanese voters sometimes have their say and that the existing order, including Japan's willingness to play host to tens of thousands of American troops, won't last forever.

Japan will have a new prime minister soon. Before too long, he will come to Washington, Mr. Clinton will call him by his first name, and both men will say that everything is fine again.

For now.

Jim Mann covers foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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