US Defense Policy and the Japanese `Threat'

WITH the end of the cold war and the collapse of the USSR's far-flung empire, the need for extensive United States troop deployments abroad would appear to have vanished, not only in Europe but also in the Pacific, where the changes have been dramatic if not quite so overwhelming. Moscow has established formal diplomatic relations with South Korea, is pulling air and naval forces out of Vietnam, and may return to Japan some of the islands seized after World War II. Even China is expanding its relations with the Republic of Korea, which now vastly outstrips its northern neighbor economically, and North Korea is reluctantly talking to Japan. Yet support for a continued expansive American role remains strong within the administration and think tanks around Washington, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the strangest is to restrain our allies, namely Germany and Japan. Although European fears of reunited Germany appear to be dwindling, hostility toward Japan throughout the Pacific remains great. Indeed, merely to talk of reducing US forces in the region brings forth anguished cries from a host of nations.

Such animus toward Japan is evident in the US as well. The fighting in the Pacific during World War II was more bitter than that in Europe, and Japan's recent economic success has caused some businessmen and politicians to hark back to Pearl Harbor. Moreover, some in the military view Japan as a potential replacement enemy for the USSR. Said retired general E.C. Meyer, formerly Army chief of staff: ``If you believe the Soviet [Union] has decreased in its international threat, then the two biggest threats are reunification of Germany, and what that really might mean, and what happens in Japan if they get involved in weapons production and other things like this over time.'' He concluded that ``Japan becoming overly involved in projection throughout Asia in any way, shape, or form would have a tremendously destabilizing impact.''

The notion that the US should not leave the Pacific, irrespective of the waning of the Soviet threat and the growth in the ability of America's allies to maintain the peace, because of Japan's aggression 50 years ago, is troubling. Should not the countries involved attempt to heal their festering wounds rather than expect American taxpayers to continue funding a military presence with few, if any, security benefits for the US?

To continue to treat Japan as a threat is to ignore its peaceful conduct since 1945. Democracy appears to be as firmly rooted there as in, say, France (remember Napoleon?). Japan has also peacefully achieved as much economic prosperity and national influence as it could have hoped to have gained from its aggression in World War II. It has nothing to gain and everything to lose from conflict.

INDEED, the experience of World War II appears to have made the Japanese people far more reluctant to use force than perhaps anyone else in the world. Although the US imposed the ``peace constitution'' on Japan after the war, the provision banning offensive action remains overwhelmingly popular.

Consider the reaction to Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's proposal, made under pressure from Washington, to send some 2,000 lightly armed, noncombat support troops to the Persian Gulf. Opposition came not only from Japan's neighbors, but also from the Japanese people, 78 percent of them, according to a November poll. With the proposed deployment doomed to defeat in the opposition-controlled upper house - Socialist Party leader Takako Doi said that, ``We will never let this pass'' - Kaifu dropped the bill.

That a popular prime minister would fail so badly in his attempt to include a few noncombatants as part of a multinational force involved in a region of great economic interest to Tokyo shows how little Japan's neighbors have to fear from renewed Japanese aggression. Says Akihiko Tanaka, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo: ``What this debate has shown is that Japan is still not over World War II. The reluctance to play any political role in the world, particularly if it involves a military presence, is still predominant.''

As the specter of Soviet conquest fades, Washington no longer needs a global network of troops and treaties to contain the Soviets. Nor do Germany and Japan pose new threats to be restrained. Their obvious reluctance to use their militaries, even in a noncombatant role, shows just how much these nations, along with the rest of the world, have changed.

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