Japan's Security Relationship With the U.S., Post-Tsunami

“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 U.S.-Japan relations,” says Asia Society Associate Fellow Ayako Doi.

“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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Japanese officials speak to each other. U.S. 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 U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue in tow, to offer not only official help but also the support of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

"All this makes the so-called 2+2 meeting of top U.S. and Japanese foreign affairs and defense officials, originally scheduled for this week but now likely to be convened just before the Obama-Kan summit in June, an interesting event to watch. Because of extraordinary demands on the time of the top leaders on other pressing issues, the task of setting priorities and mapping out the future course of the alliance will fall on the lesser diplomats and defense officials from both countries."

Ayako is based in the Washington DC area. To arrange an interview, contact the Asia Society communications department at 212-327-9271 or pr@asiasociety.org.