US Swaps Okinawa Base Land For Japanese Military Support

Future military crises in Asia may see bigger role for Japan in aiding US

SOMETIMES when you give a little, you get a lot in return.

US and Japanese officials yesterday announced agreements to hand back roughly 20 percent of the land the US military controls on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. But the two governments also agreed to expand cooperation between their two militaries during peacetime and to review guidelines that in part cover how the countries would react to a military crisis in Asia.

The agreements were announced to prepare the way for President Clinton, who arrives here today to meet with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. They "will define the security relationship in this region on into the 21st century and establish a new framework for bilateral, regional, and indeed global cooperation between the two countries," says Secretary of Defense William Perry.

It is too soon to tell exactly what Mr. Perry's "new framework" means.

One United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity, smiled when he was asked if the US - sometimes known as the global supercop - was getting a new deputy.

"We're not talking about fighting side-by-side," he said of future US-Japanese operations. "We're talking about closer military-to-military cooperation and stronger Japanese support in the event of a crisis."

US officials insisted that the pullback from Okinawa would not mean any reduction in the 47,000 US troops based in Japan, nor in American military capabilities. Japan is expected to cover the vast majority of the estimated $1 billion or more it will cost to build new facilities for the US and consolidate existing ones.

But some Japanese observers, while pleased about closures of US bases in Okinawa, are already beginning to sound anxious about the apparent trade-offs involved in having the US ease its presence in the island prefecture.

Partly because of a deeply ingrained pacifism born out of regret for the militarism that led to World War II in Asia, many Japanese resist any suggestion that their troops should do anything other than wait for the country to be attacked. The country's Constitution, drafted by US Occupation authorities after World War II, technically bans a military, but Japan maintains Self-Defense Forces that include some 150,000 personnel.

Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa, says the Japanese government is moving in the wrong direction. "The government should not just follow the US ... military strategy, but should instead seek stability in the area by peaceful means. It should endeavor to build confidence among its Asian neighbors, instead of playing bigger defense roles as requested by the US."

Because of the constitutional restrictions imposed on Japan's military, it is unclear just how much of a bigger role Japan can play in support of the US. During the Gulf war, Japan contributed money and allowed its minesweepers to enter the region once hostilities had ended, but offered no troops.

Some Asian countries, which have few pleasant memories of the Japanese military, are sure to object to the idea of Japan expanding its role overseas. South Korean news reports are already expressing concern about a more active Japanese stance in regional defense.

The limitations on Japan's role are a sore point for defenders of the US-Japan military alliance, which Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hashimoto are to "reaffirm" on Wednesday. They argue that the arrangement would, in the event of an Asian crisis, see American soldiers risking their lives while Japan merely provided support.

This criticism is one reason why the US may be trying to expand the nature and scope of defense links between the two countries.

"We are aware of the restrictions," says Walter Mondale, the US ambassador to Japan, "and we still believe that this alliance serves our interests.... We are trying to find ways of expanding cooperation within those constraints."

Mr. Mondale says that since the September rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by US servicemen - an incident that prompted loud, angry calls for a complete US withdrawal from Okinawa - Japan has examined why it values the continuation of the alliance. "I believe there is a growing consensus here ... that, yes, this alliance is essential to the US, to Japan, and to the region."

Recent tensions in Taiwan and North Korea may have helped jelled that consensus but the two governments must still contend with local opposition to US forces in Okinawa and other parts of Japan. Okinawans in particular say they hope the measures announced in recent days are just a beginning.

"The fundamental problems remain unchanged," says Akiko Yui, editorial adviser at the Okinawa Times.

"The Japanese government seems to believe that with the [recent] announcements, things have been settled. But Okinawans want the government to consider the latest agreement to be the first step toward a complete solution of the issue," says Ms. Yui.

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