If you follow East Asian affairs, you might have heard by now that Tokyo and Washington are squabbling over the future of a U.S. military base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Angry Japanese demonstrators have demanded the base's removal. The Japanese government has waffled, the Americans have blustered. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way to Japan to discuss the issue with the government in Tokyo.
But that story is actually nothing new. It's part of a long saga that goes back for decades; the latest twist has to do with the arrival in office, last year, of the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. During the election campaign Hatoyama pledged that he would get the base closed -- never mind a previous agreement between Tokyo and Washington designed to lessen burdens on the local population without closing the base altogether. The U.S. Defense Department expressed its displeasure in unusually crude terms, and the rumble was on. The resulting back and forth has poisoned relations between the two countries. Some experts have even taken to fretting that the fracas is endangering the half-century-old U.S.-Japan alliance.
There's another story from the same part of the world, however, that isn't getting quite as much press outside of the countries involved -- and it's one that leads to some rather different conclusions about the continued relevance of U.S.-Japan ties. The short version: Irritation at the United States could prove less definitive than mounting fear of China. Earlier this month, a Japanese coast guard vessel was surveying the seafloor in an area considered by Tokyo to be part of its "Exclusive Economic Zone" (EEZ) in the East China Sea. The Chinese have a rather different opinion on the matter, and on this particular occasion they decided to send a message. A Chinese "marine surveillance ship" showed up and basically drove the Japanese ship out of the area.
And that's not all. In the middle of April, a group of 10 vessels (including two submarines) from the Chinese Navy turned up in international waters not far from Okinawa. The Japanese defense minister called the presence of such a large group of ships "unprecedented" and vowed to bring the matter under investigation. A week earlier a Chinese helicopter zoomed into within 90 meters (295 feet) of a Japanese destroyer that was monitoring another Chinese naval force maneuvering off the Japanese coast. Nerves in Tokyo are officially rattled. The conservative newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun has accused the year-old government in Tokyo of abetting China's bad behavior by bending over backward to please the Chinese. (Hatoyama, whose Democratic Party of Japan won an election that essentially ended half a century of solo rule by the rival Liberal Democratic Party, had also made improving relations with China one of his priorities.) Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice-admiral who is now director of the Okazaki Institute think tank in Tokyo, faults the government for waiting too long to scold the Chinese after some of the recent incidents. He says that both the political elite and the broader public are "deeply concerned about the Chinese moves."
That Japan and China should be sparring like this is by no means a given. In many respects the two countries' relationship has never been better. China overtook the United States as Japan's leading trade partner back in 2006. It was largely demand from China that helped to pull Japan out of the recent economic crisis. And, of course, Hatoyama's expressed intention to improve relations ought to have helped a bit as well. Not that things were all that bad to begin with, says Robert Dujarric, a security expert at Tokyo's Temple University: "Every prime minister since Koizumi wanted to engage with China," referring to Junichiro Koizumi, who left office in 2006.
So what's going on here? Some skeptics -- like Tokyo-based political consultant Michael Cucek -- say it's mostly smoke and mirrors: "Both the [Japanese] Self-Defense Force and the [Chinese] People's Liberation Army have an interest in intensifying the sense of tension between the two countries in order to loosen budgetary purse strings and for reasons of domestic prestige."