Japan, US tune up defense policies

Posted in Japan | 08-Dec-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - Japan and the United States are preparing to convene a meeting of foreign and defense ministers in mid-January to tune up their defense policies amid growing security challenges, especially from North Korea.

The Japan-US Security Consultative Committee, as the meeting is formally called, or "two plus two" as it is informally styled, will be held in the United States to reaffirm the importance of strengthening the bilateral security alliance despite key changes in the government lineup of the close allies since it was last held in May.

In late September, Shinzo Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister of Japan. Abe is as much a staunch proponent as his predecessor of a sturdier Japan-US alliance. Abe picked Fumio Kyuma as his Defense Agency chief while retaining Foreign Minister Taro Aso. Meanwhile, in the US, former director of central intelligence Robert Gates replaced defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The upcoming meeting will be attended by Kyuma and Aso from the Japanese side and Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from the US side.

For Kyuma, the forthcoming two-plus-two meeting will probably mark his diplomatic debut as a full-fledged defense minister, as the status of Japan's Defense Agency is set to be upgraded to a ministry on January 9, more than five decades after its inception.

Takemasa Moriya, the Defense Agency's administrative vice minister, indicated on Monday that the upcoming meeting will deal with a wide range of issues, saying, "There are many security issues that Japan and the US face." Topping the agenda are expected to be North Korea, deployment of the missile defense system, the realignment of US forces stationed in Japan, and policy on Iraq.

North Korea
On the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, the Japanese and US ministers will discuss how to run the stalled six-nation talks and reaffirm the need for close cooperation between Tokyo and Washington on sanctions aimed at Pyongyang.

The nuclear talks, which are hosted by China and also include the US, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea, stalled in November last year after Pyongyang pulled out in protest over US financial sanctions. Japan and the US have taken a tough approach toward North Korea, while China, Russia and South Korea have advocated a softer approach. Japan and the US have no diplomatic relations with the Stalinist state led by Kim Jong-il. Abe is a hardliner on North Korea.

At the upcoming two-plus-two meeting, Japan apparently hopes to reaffirm the importance of maintaining strong unity and close policy coordination in dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue. Some people in Japan wonder what changes, if any, will come in the US policy toward North Korea after the Democratic Party's winning a majority of both houses of Congress in a recent election, and John Bolton's resignation as US ambassador to the United Nations, which was announced on Monday.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test on October 9, triggering international alarm and condemnation and inviting financial and arms sanctions at the UN. At the end of that month, Pyongyang agreed to restart the six-party talks. US assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan met again in Beijing last week but failed to nail down a date for the resumed talks, apparently because of sharp differences, although Hill said he still hoped the talks could begin by the end of the year.

Pyongyang reportedly ruled out unilaterally renouncing nuclear weapons without security guarantees. Hill also reportedly demanded that Pyongyang pledge to meet four preconditions for restarting the six-way talks, including the complete closure of an underground facility used for its October nuclear explosion in Punggyeri in North Hamgyong province, declaration of all its nuclear facilities and programs, opening of such facilities to inspections at an early stage by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the suspension of operations at an experimental nuclear reactor in Yongbyon that produces plutonium.

Kim Kye-gwan has said Pyongyang is ready for talks, which he said would be on an "equal level" after its nuclear test.

Speaking in Beijing after talks with Kim, Hill said it was vital that any renewed discussions had a real chance of success. "We've got to get North Korea off of this nuclearization program because, unless they denuclearize, really nothing is going to be possible."

This stance was echoed on Monday by Shotaro Yachi, Japan's administrative vice foreign minister, who said that although Japan wants to see a resumption of the six-way talks by the end of the year, just getting together would be meaningless and specific results must be achieved.

Missile defense
Pyongyang's recent nuclear test - which followed its July test-firing of missiles, including a failed test of a Taepodong-2 missile that could reach some US territory - has significantly heightened concerns among most Japanese. As a result, Japan has revved up efforts to deploy its missile defense system in cooperation with the US.

When they met recently on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hanoi, Prime Minister Abe and President George W Bush reaffirmed that the two countries should accelerate cooperation in building a missile defense system in response to North Korea's nuclear test. Their foreign and defense chiefs are expected to agree to expedite deployment of interceptors during their upcoming meeting.

The Defense Agency plans to deploy the first Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC3) surface-to-air interceptor missiles in Saitama prefecture, next to Tokyo, by next March, as originally planned, and in three other prefectures, also adjacent to Tokyo, by the end of 2007, instead of the original March 2008 deadline. In late August, the agency requested a more than 50% increase in its missile defense budget for fiscal 2007, which starts next April.

The budget request of 219 billion yen (US$1.9 billion) is mainly to pay for accelerating the deployment of PAC3 missiles. The agency's budget request, if approved by the cabinet and Diet, Japan's parliament, will advance some PAC3 purchases originally planned for fiscal 2008 or later, resulting in an increase in the number of missiles to be deployed at Self-Defense Forces (SDF) bases in the four prefectures surrounding Tokyo by the end of 2007.

Still, it will take five more years for the PAC3 deployment program to cover not only the Tokyo metropolitan area but also other areas of the country. For this reason, the Defense Agency requested recently that the US deploy a seaborne missile defense system around Japan as soon as possible.

The US Navy already stationed in late August the USS Shiloh, a cruiser equipped with both the Aegis missile tracking and engaging system and Standard Missile-3 (SM3) interceptor missiles, at Yokosuka Naval Base near Tokyo. The Shiloh is one of three upgraded, Aegis-equipped warships and is the first to be deployed outside the US.

The US Navy plans to mount SM3 missiles on two of the seven other warships stationed at the base. The upgrade work is expected to begin before the end of this month, and the two upgraded warships will be deployed next spring, at the earliest. The US Navy plans to install SM3 missiles on two more of the warships stationed at the base later, bringing the total number of US ships equipped with the SM3 system to five.

Tokyo plans to install the SM3 system on its Aegis-equipped destroyer Kongou by the end of calendar 2007, instead of by the end of fiscal 2007 on March 31, 2008, as had been planned earlier. Japan also plans to finish refitting its three other Aegis ships so they can carry the SM3 system by the end of fiscal 2010.

Japan and the US envisage a two-stage interception system to deal with a possible missile attack. First, Aegis vessels from both countries would try to intercept an incoming missile in space by launching SM3 missiles. If unsuccessful, the PAC3 missiles would provide the next line of defense. North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific. The Stalinist state has already deployed an estimated 200 or so shorter-range Rodong missiles that are capable of striking almost anywhere in Japanese territory.

Meanwhile, US forces began to deploy PAC3 interceptor missiles at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa in September to make them partly operational by the end of the year. The deployment at Kadena - the largest US air base in East Asia - is the first at a US facility in Japan. In a related development, Japan has also asked the US to deploy its PAC3s at its bases in the Tokyo metropolitan area, most likely at Yokota Air Base and Yosokuka.

In late September, the US military activated a unit operating a high-powered X-band radar at Camp Shariki in the northern Japanese prefecture of Aomori that is capable of tracking ballistic missiles in the region, a key part of the joint missile defense project. The high-resolution radar is so powerful that it can identify baseball-size objects from thousands of kilometers away and is designed to differentiate between decoys and real missile warheads.

The Japanese government decided last December to start joint development with the US of an advanced version of the sea-based SM3 interceptor missile as a pillar of the US-led missile defense system. The joint development cost of the new interceptor missile is estimated to be as much as $2.7 billion, with Japan shouldering up to $1.2 billion and the US paying for the remainder. The two allies plan to begin production of the next-generation interceptor missile in fiscal 2015, which will be deployed on Aegis-equipped destroyers.

Prompted by North Korea's nuclear test, the Abe government has begun to consider stretching the boundaries of the constitution to make it possible for Japan to strike North Korean ballistic missiles heading to the US, a move that has been surprisingly controversial. In 2003, the government of then prime minister Koizumi issued a statement that Japan cannot shoot down missiles bound for the US because doing so would tantamount to collective defense - or coming to the military aid of an ally under attack - banned under the constitution.

Forces realignment
At the last such meeting in Washington, Japan and the United States compiled the final report on the realignment of US forces in Japan. At the next two-plus-two meeting, the two countries are expected to agree to firmly implement the agreements in the report, especially the relocation of the US Marine Corps's Futenma Air Station from a densely populated area in Ginowan, southern Okinawa, to coastal areas of Camp Schwab in the northern Okinawa city of Nago by 2014.

The Futenma relocation is one of the major issues among the plans for US military realignment in Japan, which also call for moving 8,000 of the 18,000 marines stationed on Okinawa to Guam, also by 2014. The US has made the agreed marine transfer conditional on progress on the relocation plan.

The meeting comes about two months after the Okinawa gubernatorial election on November 19, in which a candidate backed by the Democratic Party of Japan and other opposition parties, who was a staunch opponent of the presence of US bases in the prefecture, lost to another candidate supported by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led ruling coalition.

The ruling coalition was relieved that Hirokazu Nakaima won the election. Nakaima's victory undoubtedly will help advance the US forces realignment process, as he has voiced his willingness to accept the relocation of the Futenma Air Station within the prefecture. The opposition candidate had demanded the transfer of the station outside of Japan. But the Futenma relocation plan will still face rough going, because Nakaima demands modifications to the plan.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of an original 1997 agreement between Tokyo and Washington on removing the Futenma base and returning the land to Okinawa. This original plan to build new facilities to relocate the base from Ginowan to a site off Henoko, also in the city of Nago, bogged down in the face of strong local opposition. If the new relocation plan does not proceed for completion by the target year of 2014, the Japan-US security alliance could suffer a lot.

Iraq policy
The Abe cabinet will approve on Friday an extension of the Air SDF's mission in Iraq until next July 31. The cabinet first approved the government's basic plan for Iraqi reconstruction assistance in December 2003. Since then, its extension has been approved annually, in 2004 and 2005. The upcoming approve will mark the third extension.

The four-year law was enacted in July 2003 to enable Japan to dispatch SDF troops to Iraq, the first SDF mission to a combat zone after World War II. Although about 600 Ground SDF troops stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah withdrew from Iraq in July, the Air SDF unit based in Kuwait is continuing its mission. The units have been transporting personnel and supplies for the UN and the multinational forces.

Defense Agency director general Kyuma has said the special law needs to be extended to allow the Air SDF to continue its mission as part of reconstruction assistance to Iraq. Air SDF members began airlifts from their base in Kuwait to certain airports in Iraq in March 2004 using C-130 transport aircraft, initially to support Ground SDF troops in Samawah.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is yiu45535@nifty.com.

Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.