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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fukuda knows Japan needs U.S.

By Richard Halloran

Searching conversations with Japanese diplomats, politicians, officials, scholars, business executives and journalists in Japan and the U.S. over the past several years have almost always led to the same conclusion: When it comes to national security, Japan has no choice but to nurture its alliance with America.

Confronted with a North Korea armed with missiles and nuclear weapons, anxious about a possible long-term threat from China, worried about a resurgent Russia, and concerned over barely concealed hostility from South Korea, the Japanese said they could turn only to America.

"We want to have a more independent foreign policy," said an influential journalist, adding in the next breath, "but only in the context of our alliance with America." Even Japanese efforts to reach out to other democracies in Australia and India are within the framework of the alliance with America.

On the other side, many American counterparts who are well versed in the security issues of Asia assert that the U.S. has no choice but to rely on Japan as America's main ally in Asia. And like Japan, the U.S. has been reaching out to Australia and India to buttress its security posture in Asia.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chief of naval operations who is about to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in Washington, D.C., this week that Japan was a "very critical partner." He said he had found Japanese officers sharing his "uncertainty" over China's military investments but was encouraged by recent joint maritime operations with Japan and India.

The central question today is whether Japan's new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, and his most prominent opponent, Ichiro Ozawa, understand this fundamental reality. The guess from this perch in the Pacific is that Fukuda does understand and is prepared to act accordingly. Ozawa also appears to understand but is willing to jeopardize the alliance as he seeks domestic political advantage.

Among his first acts, Prime Minister Fukuda spoke with President Bush by telephone and arranged an early visit to Washington, possibly in November. Kyodo News reported that Fukuda told Bush he would seek to have Japanese ships continue dispensing fuel to U.S. and allied vessels in the Indian Ocean beyond Nov. 1, when their legal authority is to expire.

Ozawa opposes that deployment even though earlier he was seen as an advocate of the alliance with the U.S. He was the author of a book, "Blueprint for a New Japan," in which he argued that Japan should become a "normal nation" taking a responsible role in international relations. He has now cynically turned that on its head as he seeks to obstruct the new prime minister.

The rivalry between Ozawa and Fukuda goes back a generation. Ozawa's political mentor, the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who served from 1972 to 1974, and Fukuda's father, the late Takeo Fukuda, who was prime minister from 1976 to 1978, were fierce rivals and political memories in Japan are long.

The conventional wisdom emanating from Tokyo holds that Fukuda was unenthusiastic about running for prime minister, that he lacks the experience to excel and seems to be a dull, old-fashioned politician.

Well, just a minute. Fukuda won the party election, which made him prime minister, rather handily. He showed considerable political skill in pulling together his party's factions, the key operating units in Japanese politics. Fukuda may have learned that from his father.

Moreover, Fukuda was chief cabinet secretary from 2000 to 2004. In Japan's government by cabinet and consensus, the prime minister is the first among equals. The chief cabinet secretary holds ministerial rank, is executive officer and spokesman for the cabinet, and is second in authority to the prime minister.

Shortly after the terrorist assaults in New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda announced that Japan would dispatch two destroyers and a supply ship to the Indian Ocean. Then he disclosed an eight-point anti-terror plan that included "support for neighboring countries of Afghanistan, in particular to Pakistan."

And when American soldiers captured the deposed dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, in 2003, the chief cabinet secretary praised "the courage and endurance of the allied forces in Iraq, including the United States and United Kingdom."

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.