Getting Real on Japan

Bob Gates now appears to understand that the U.S.-Japan alliance is much bigger than one base in Okinawa. But both sides still have a long way to go.

Two learning curves intersected in Tokyo this week when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to town, part of a Northeast Asian swing that started in Beijing and will finish in Seoul.

One curve is under way in Japan, where the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is learning the difference between campaigning and governing. Ending a half-century of nearly uninterrupted conservative rule, the DPJ came to power in September 2009 vowing to forge a more "equal" relationship with its patron ally and put more emphasis on Japan's ties with Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.

The DPJ also pledged to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases placed on the people of Okinawa, where the bases occupy nearly a fifth of the island. The new government hoped to revisit the unimplemented 1996 agreement to move the helicopters and planes stationed at Futenma Marine air base, dangerously crowded in among apartment buildings and schools on the southern part of the island, to a new base built in its less densely populated northern half.

Since taking power, the DPJ has struggled to reconcile its electoral pledges with the reality of a serially provocative North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China. Yukio Hatoyama's inability to manage the base issue with the United States became emblematic of his weak leadership, costing him the premiership after only nine months and contributing to the party's loss of the upper house of parliament last summer.

Americans somewhat smugly congratulate Tokyo for its belated realism. Less acknowledged is Washington's own learning curve about both the realities of politics in Japan and the enduring value of the alliance. The early days of the DPJ administration were marked by barely disguised U.S. disdain for its political ineptitude and domestic troubles, and even, among some U.S. officials, expectations that a strategic condominium with China could eventually supplant the Cold War alliance with Japan.

Gates's successful role as alliance manager this week stands in stark contrast to his visit more than a year ago, in October 2009. Back then, he came to bluntly tell the Japanese to drop any talk of reopening the Okinawa base issue. "This may not be the perfect alternative for anyone," Gates said, "but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on." He dismissed any other options as "politically untenable and operationally unworkable."

As for the alliance, Gates forcefully reminded his Japanese hosts that Americans were there to protect their country -- allowing the Japanese to spend very little on their own self-defense over the past half-century. At the same time, Obama administration officials talked openly about Japan's diminishing importance, hinting at China's potential as a new strategic partner. A senior State Department official told the Washington Post that the U.S. had "grown comfortable" with the idea of Japan as a constant in U.S. relations with the region. It no longer fills that role, he said, adding ominously that "the hardest thing right now is not China -- it's Japan."

The March 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, shook that illusory view of the region. China's decision to back Pyongyang and its vocal opposition to U.S. naval deployments in the Yellow Sea surprised some in Washington. Meanwhile the DPJ government in Tokyo lined up strongly behind Seoul, as it did later after North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last November. The new administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Hatoyama's successor, got its own shock when Beijing purposely escalated tensions over the arrest of a Chinese fishing-boat captain following a collision near Japanese-controlled islands in the disputed oil and gas rich waters of the East China Sea.

By last fall, talk of a "strategic partnership" with China had been replaced by a new emphasis on bolstering traditional Cold War-era cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States. In October, ahead of the president's visit to Japan, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell admitted that the "learning process is not confined just to Tokyo."

Campbell told reporters in Tokyo that the difficulties of the past year served as "a reminder to the United States [of] how badly we need a good relationship with Japan" to deal with the challenges in Asia. "It is critical for this generation of American policymakers to in no way take Japan for granted," he said, in an obvious swipe at more Sino-centric colleagues back in Washington.

Those two learning curves visibly crossed during Gates's visit to Tokyo this week. The Kan administration, fresh off talks in Seoul about strengthening security ties, showed much greater readiness to cooperate on regional security. It is ready to ease restrictions on export to third countries of missile-defense technology jointly developed by the two countries, a move the United States has sought.

Gates offered his own upbeat vision of a renewed Japan-U.S. alliance in the 21st century:

"While issues associated with Okinawa and Futenma have tended to dominate the headlines this past year," Gates told the press, "the U.S.-Japan defense alliance is broader, deeper, and indeed richer than any single issue. In this, the 51st year of the U.S.-Japan alliance, it is important to remember that ours is an enduring and equal partnership based on interests and values that unite our two peoples."

As for the base issue, Gates was notably deferential to his hosts. "We do understand that it is politically a complex matter in Japan and we intend to follow the lead of the Japanese government in working with the people of Okinawa to take their interests and their concerns into account."

This represents a real change of tone, if not policy, provided it is sustained. Having reached this point of intersection, Tokyo and Washington are no closer, however, to solving the problem that has bedeviled their relationship. Reading Gates's words carefully, he still insists on the base being moved to the proposed Henoko location, though perhaps at a slower tempo. Both governments are once again resorting to traditional tactics of trying to buy off islanders with economic subsidies, promises of construction contracts, and gestures such as moving noisy aircraft exercises elsewhere.

Standing on the white-sand shores of the pristine bay, as I have, and looking out onto glistening blue waters into which the United States proposes to dump a mountain of sand and build the new air base, it is easy to understand why this has no more chance of working now than it did during decades of conservative rule. And the victory of anti-base candidates in elections in the last year on Okinawa, both in the locality around the proposed base and for the governorship, made this clear.

The strategic importance of the U.S. presence in Japan, particularly of the 7th Fleet based on the main island of Honshu and the sprawling Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, is not in question. And given recent events, the availability of some Marine forces makes sense. But neither government has made a convincing case for why an entire Marine expeditionary force needs to remain on Okinawa.

Ultimately, both governments are still going to have to find a real alternative to the base problem, while keeping their eyes focused firmly on the strategic horizon. The question is whether both Washington and Tokyo can take what they have learned so far and move forward to a more mature and yes, more equal, relationship.



Breaking Up Is Good to Do

Southern Sudan is just the beginning. The world may soon have 300 independent, sovereign nations ... and that's just fine.

View photos of the next wave of new countries.

This year will almost certainly see the birth of a new country named Southern Sudan. It might also witness the creation of an independent Palestine, as Palestinian leaders push for unilateral recognition of their national sovereignty within their country's 1967 borders. And within a couple of years, a sovereign Kurdistan might emerge from a still-brittle Iraq. We could be entering a new period of mass state birth: Imagine an independent South Ossetia, Somaliland, and Darfur too. The trend is nothing new, but it's picking up steam again. The most recent sovereign entrant was in 2008, when Kosovo emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia; nine years earlier, in 1999, it was East Timor gaining independence from Indonesia.

Because of this wave of self-determination culminating in sovereignty, there are today more autonomous political units in the world than at any time since the Middle Ages of a millennium ago. Within a few decades, we could easily have 300 states in the world. Moreover, we are gradually returning to the medieval world of thousands of multilayered communities ranging from the supranational European Union to the magnetic city-states of the Persian Gulf to the indigenous communities of the Inuit of Canada and Greenland.

This instability is the cartographic expression of an underlying geopolitical phenomenon afflicting much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia: post-colonial entropy. Except for a few, rare cases, many of the colonies that gained their independence a half-century ago have since experienced unmanageable population growth, predatory and corrupt dictatorship, crumbling infrastructure and institutions, and ethnic or sectarian polarization.

Whether or not Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo technically qualify as "failed states," their fates are sealed by their colonial inheritance. Indeed, it's often their borders that are the deepest cause of their conflicts. Many of these national borders are in desperate need of adjustment, and the rest of the world should show more flexibility in allowing them to do so. Europe messed it up the first time, but now the West can support the right regional bodies to adjudicate these new borders -- helping others help themselves in the process.

By this logic, today's hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan are not simply "America's Wars." Rather, they are to some extent the unexploded ordnance left over from old European wars, with their fuses lit on slow release. Indeed, the United States had nothing to do with the Sykes-Picot and other agreements that parceled the Levant into French- and British-allied monarchies, or the Congress of Berlin, which drew suspiciously straight lines on Africa's map. Some of these haphazard agreements created oversized or artificial agglomerations like Sudan, which threw together heretofore independent groups of Arabs, Africans, Christians, and Muslims into a country one-fourth the size of the United States but lacking any common national ethos or adequate distribution of resources to sustain commitment to unity. Others did the opposite, like the British officer Henry Mortimer Durand, whose infamous line divided the Pashtun nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This growing cartographic stress is not just America's challenge. All the world's influential powers and diplomats should seize a new moral high ground by agreeing to prudently apply in such cases Woodrow Wilson's support for self-determination of peoples. This would be a marked improvement over today's ad hoc system of backing disreputable allies, assembling unworkable coalitions, or simply hoping for tidy dissolutions. Reasserting the principle of self-determination would allow for the sort of true statesmanship lacking on today's global stage.

In Sudan, the United States has certainly placed itself on the right side of this trend. It has been a key architect of the internationally sanctioned referendum that will likely result in Southern Sudan's independence, making clear that the eventual split is not a U.S.-led conspiracy to hack apart the Arab-Muslim world. Such a legitimate process has given cover to China to reorient its policy as well, balancing its staunch support for the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Khartoum with upgraded relations with the Southern government in Juba, which has in return promised to honor the China National Petroleum Corp.'s contracts. (Sixty percent of Sudan's oil exports currently go to China.)

But there is more to ushering new nations into existence than preventing neighboring antagonists from invading one another (as fundamentally important as that is). All three of the world's current quasi-states -- Southern Sudan, Palestine, and Kurdistan -- will be effectively landlocked and vulnerable unless they are provided with viable infrastructure to connect to external markets. In addition to the existing Sudanese north-south pipelines, Southern Sudan needs a new pipeline across Kenya to the Indian Ocean to export oil through additional routes. Likewise, Kurdistan needs pipelines via Turkey and Syria to Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, and Palestine needs the Rand Corp.'s proposed "Arc" of road and rail corridors to link the West Bank and Gaza into an integrated unit. These linkages to the outside world are insurance policies against dependence on and domination by neighbors, whether Sudan, Iraq and Turkey, or Israel, respectively. While the White House remains obsessed with "security guarantees" for Israel that rest on empty or short-lived gestures of goodwill, it is infrastructure, rather, that is the prerequisite to peaceful coexistence. Nation-building is as much physical as institutional; independence without infrastructure is impossible.

The entropy afflicting the post-colonial world will not stop anytime soon. States like Congo, Nigeria, and Pakistan, which are internally diffuse and often intentionally unevenly developed, will soon be too large to manage themselves. It is less likely that they will gather the competence, capacity, and will to become equitable modern states than that they will continue to inspire resistance to the legacies of centralized misrule.

The coming partitions must be performed with a combination of scalpel and ax, soft and hard power. Above all, the world must recognize that these partitions are inevitable. Our reflex is to fear changes on the map out of concern for violence or having to learn the names of new countries. But in an age when any group can acquire the tools of violent resistance, the only alternative to self-determination is perpetual conflict. After genocidal campaigns such as Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds and Serbia's brutal repression of the Kosovars, it is impossible to imagine those groups again living under one government. Rather than delay, the emphasis should be on diplomatic efficiency: Speedy partitions can lead to more amicable outcomes, such as the "velvet divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Both are now members of the European Union, within which they respect one another's borders even as such borders have largely become irrelevant.

Finally, we must be weary of status quo conservatism motivated by selfish concerns. Russia and China staunchly opposed Kosovo's independence for the sake of their own quasi-imperial possessions, but did a sovereign government in Pristina really undermine Russia's ironclad rule over Chechnya or China's grip on Tibet?

Each territorial conflict has a particular mix of historical, geographic, and diplomatic conditions that will breed unique solutions. But one thing is certain: The way to create a peaceful and borderless world is, ironically, by allowing ever more nations to define themselves and their borders. Then, and only then, will they seek openness and integration with the rest of the world. Breakups are sometimes the path to better friendships.