In the sometimes lopsided world of US-Japan relations, it makes sense that even something as bland as "guidelines for defense cooperation" - which the two nations outlined over the weekend - should have dramatically different results.
For America, expanded defense cooperation with Japan comes down to things like easier access to runways and some help with minesweeping in a potential Asian conflict. For the Japanese, it raises infinitely more complex issues, such as how this government handles security crises, the nature of its pacifist Constitution, and its sensitive ties with the rest of Asia.
The security relationship between the US and Japan has always been an unequal deal. The current defense treaty, signed in 1960, commits the US to defend Japan, which has meant shielding the Japanese islands under America's nuclear umbrella and keeping thousands of US troops here. In return Japan has provided the US with land and money to maintain military bases - in other words, it has chopped some onions while the US has cooked dinner.
There were some unwritten aspects to the deal: It ensured that Japan would side with the West during the cold war and would not rebuild its own military - a situation that relieved many people with memories of Japanese occupation. For many Chinese, Koreans, and other Asians, the only safe Japan is a toothless one.
But as a result of a growing sense on both sides of the Pacific that the US-Japan alliance was a cold-war leftover, the two governments pledged in April 1996 to begin a new era of expanded cooperation.
And in Hawaii over the weekend, they released an interim report on an ongoing review of policies that govern how their militaries should help each other.
What Japan would do
The report is a preview of guidelines the two governments plan to solidify this fall, revising a set of policies established in 1978. In rough outline, the interim report shows how Japan will help the US address crises in the region and how the two countries can cooperate in humanitarian missions and peacekeeping operations.
It proposes that Japan's warships participate in minesweeping operations on the high seas and help the US enforce a naval blockade against a third country. The new guidelines should make it easier for the US to mount combat operations from its bases in Japan and use Japanese military and civilian facilities in emergencies.
No collective arrangement
The problem with these ideas is that Japan has a pacifist Constitution that the US initially drafted in the wake of World War II during its occupation. The charter bars the use of force in resolving international disputes, a ban that the Japanese government has interpreted to mean that it cannot participate in collective security arrangements.
Officials working on the new guidelines took pains to say that Japan has no intention of abandoning its pacifist stance. "The basic nature or character of Japan's defense will be maintained," says a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But at the same time Japan will do much more in regional contingencies."
Even so, the Japanese media yesterday questioned how Japan could assist in minesweeping, help out in a military blockade, and provide rear-guard support for the US and not open itself to attack.
Japan's Constitution has a good deal of public support, but in recent years there has been growing debate among politicians and academics about the need to draw up a new national charter. Discussion of expanded cooperation with the US seems likely to add momentum to the process, though the report released in Hawaii made clear that the new guidelines do not themselves require legislative changes.
Even so, Japanese government officials seem to welcome the idea that the new guidelines will cause some ferment over key aspects of the country's security arrangements.
"We very much hope the Diet [parliament] and mass media will have very active and constructive discussions as to how Japan should develop its own crisis- management system," says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity yesterday.
Some analysts say the Hawaii preview is already a sign of progress on this front. The interim report represents a "maturing of Japanese security consciousness," says Torkel Patterson, senior associate at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank. "Things that were taboo 10 years ago are now being openly discussed."
The US and Japan are already working to explain their intentions to other governments in Asia, and Japanese officials have visited Beijing and Seoul to talk about the interim report. Chinese officials have repeatedly cautioned the US against adopting a policy of "containing" China - the policy used against the Soviet Union - and yesterday a Chinese official complained that the new guidelines seemed to reflect "cold-war thinking."
Not competing with China
The US official interviewed stressed that most of the expanded areas of cooperation envisaged by the new guidelines concern peaceful activities.
"If you can do better peacekeeping and better humanitarian relief, does that mean you're competing with China? I don't think so," he says.