After Calamity, A 'Testy' Alliance Gets Reassessed

Chief Naval Air Crewman Francisco Garcia (L) delivers meals ready-to-eat to a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force soldier on Mar. 18, 2011 in Yamada, Japan. (Lt. Eric Quarlesr/US Navy via Getty Images)

The March 11 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster not only caused a tremendous amount of destruction, death, and misery in Japan, but the aftermath of the calamity is now forcing Japan to reassess its social, economic, and diplomatic options in unprecedented ways. One of the cases in point is US-Japan relations.

Before the tremor in Tohoku, the trans-Pacific alliance was testy to say the least — mainly because of Washington's push for Tokyo to fulfill a promise it is incapable of fulfilling, over US bases in Okinawa.

At least two governments in the last two years have fallen because of their inability to carry out a 2006 bilateral accord that obliges Tokyo to build a US Marine air base near the town of Henoko so an existing Marine base in more populated Ginowan City can be closed. Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who took office last fall, was nowhere closer to convincing the local communities to accept the plan when the earthquake hit — and that hasn't changed today.

What did change is the tone in which US and Japanese officials speak to each other. US forces in Japan, most of them stationed in Okinawa, moved ships and troops to the disaster zones with remarkable speed and efficiency in what they called Operation Tomodachi (Friends) to run major search-and-rescue and assist in the massive cleanup. Washington provided critically needed expertise on nuclear power plants to help the Tokyo Electric Power Co. regain control of the Fukushima facility. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Tokyo last week, with US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue in tow, to offer not only official help but also the support of the US business community to help Japan with reconstruction as well as continued cooperation in its effort to control nuclear contamination. She was greeted warmly by Prime Minister Kan and his cabinet members, all of whom expressed deep gratitude to a country that has become the veritable friend in need.

Before the disaster, Kan had been scheduled to visit Washington in late June for what was expected to be a difficult bilateral discussion on the Okinawa bases. Tokyo says the trip is still on, though there is no prospect for resolving differences on the issue. Even though the American work in disaster relief markedly improved Japanese appreciation of US troops on their soil, local officials in Okinawa — recently elected on anti-base platforms — remain determined to block Tokyo from building the new air field.

Meanwhile, Beijing is watching with great interest how the earthquake will affect Japan's economic and political clout in the world, as well as its security relations with Washington.

Ayako Doi is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.

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Ayako Doi is a journalist in Washington. She has covered Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship since mid 1970s, writing for The Japan Times, Newsweek, the Financial Times and other publications. She is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.