U.S. Concerns: First Germany, Now Japan?

Commentary No. 272, Jan. 1, 2010

The geopolitical strategy of the United States after 1945 was based on what seemed to be a solid rock – control over its two defeated enemies in the Second World War, Germany and Japan. For a long time, each country was governed by a single conservative party – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Japan. The two parties pursued a policy of close alliance with the United States and faithful support of its geopolitical positions.

The unbreakable support began to break down first in Germany. For one thing, the CDU began to alternate power in 1969 with the Social-Democratic Party whose Chancellor, Willy Brandt, launched the Ostpolitik, seeking some sort of détente with the Soviet Union. The weakening of German links with the United States progressed slowly until the significant break in 2003 when Germany allied itself with France and Russia to defeat the U.S.-supported resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have constituted an endorsement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Nothing similar happened for a long time in Japan, until Aug. 31, 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama, swept the LDP out of office on a platform that included rethinking Japan’s “subservient” relationship with the United States. Hatoyama had published an article in 1996 in which he described the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as “a Cold War relic” and called for weaning away Japan from “excessive dependence” on the United States.

There had long been a contentious issue in U.S.-Japan relations, which was the existence of, and conditions governing, U.S. military bases on Okinawa. To lessen the discord, the United States was negotiating a new arrangement with the previous LDP government that would transfer some (but not all) U.S. troops from the island of Okinawa to Guam, and relocate the existing military base to a more remote area on Okinawa. Hatoyama, however, seemed to want U.S. troops to leave the island entirely. This was the strongly-voiced view of one of the DPJ’s coalition partners, the Social-Democratic Party.

There was an additional complication. Just at this moment, a secret agreement between the United States and Japan came to light. Okinawa had been occupied by the United States since 1945, and under its total control. The United States then agreed to “revert” the island to Japan in 1972, while keeping a base. There was one problem. The United States had nuclear weapons on Okinawa. Japan had an official policy of the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” – not possessing, not producing, and not permitting the entrance of nuclear weapons into Japan. These principles would now presumably govern the U.S. base. It seems, however, that President Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato signed an agreement in 1969 permitting the United States to reenter nuclear weapons to Okinawa in case of an “emergency.” Since this was a direct violation of Japanese official policy, it was kept secret and known to very few people in Japan.

In addition, after assuming office, Hatoyama added fuel to the fire by calling publicly for the creation of an East Asian Community, embracing China, South Korea, and Japan, but not including the United States.

The initial U.S. reaction to all of these events was to consider Hatoyama’s position the rhetoric of a “populist, inexperienced” government, which was not to be taken too seriously. But as Hatoyama continued to waffle on the proposed new Okinawa agreement, the U.S. government became ever more distrustful of him and worried about the long-term implications of what seemed to be a new turn in Japanese geopolitical strategy. In late December, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened the Japanese Ambassador to tell him bluntly that the United States would not budge on the terms of the proposed new arrangement about the military base. The Washington Post now reports that the United States is “vexed” with Hatoyama, and considers the Japanese position as quite possibly more “problematic” than they had previously thought.

It is true that both leading newspapers in Japan, the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun have run editorials and op-eds this last month cautioning against this break with the United States. But so did conservative newspapers in Germany as it moved away from total alignment with the United States. Still, Hatoyama is under some internal political pressure to slow down on his distancing from the United States, and hence he waffles. But waffling is not the same as restoring close links with an ally that previously did not need to worry about the loyalty of its “solid rocks.”

It is presently thought that the existing conservative government of South Korea shares this U.S. view about Japan. However, South Korea’s own distancing from the United States started long ago, and initially under the leadership of the very same conservative party now again in power. In 2003, the South Korean government admitted that it had been enriching uranium and plutonium in secret for two decades. This process went much further in the process of creating nuclear weapons in violation of the Safeguards Agreement than anything Iran is accused of doing. This was never referred to the U.N. Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but does reveal a degree of autonomy from dependence on the United States.

If one combines what is happening in Japan and South Korea with China’s increasing geopolitical assertiveness, it seems quite probable that the next decade will see considerable movement towards the creation of Hatoyama’s East Asian Community.

As Germany (and France) move closer to Russia, and Japan (and South Korea) move closer to China, the United States can no longer count in any way on the two solid rocks on which it built its geopolitical strategy as the (erstwhile) hegemonic power of the world-system.