- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

OVER THE EAST CHINA SEA — In a delicate ballet 25,000 feet above the open sea, four Japanese F-15s pull up to a U.S. Air Force tanker, the red disk of the standing sun shining from their fuselage and wings. One by one, they maneuver into range of the tanker’s refueling boom, hold their position, then dip their wings and vanish.

American military planners say it’s the look of the future — a deeply interwoven relationship with a credible Japanese ally ready to deploy overseas and share the burden of keeping the peace in a volatile region.

To the American crew, the mock refueling is just another day’s work.

?The skill level is the same; the planes are the same,? said boom operator Tech. Sgt. Michael Webster of Greenfield, Mass. ?It’s basically just like working with our own people.? The only difference, he says, is the language, but both sides manage with English.

In Washington, it’s called ?interoperability,? and it’s a top military priority. With its own forces engaged in Iraq and elsewhere, the United States needs to strengthen its alliances and draw on its friends for whatever support it can get. And since the end of World War II, Japan has been Washington’s best friend in Asia.

But the idea of a beefed-up Japanese military doesn’t resonate well through the region.

As the two-week refueling exercise was being carried out late last month, relations between Japan and neighboring China were plunging to their lowest point in years, largely over Japanese wartime aggression that left millions of Chinese dead, and over Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

There is no consensus in Japan, either.

Some Japanese leery

Negotiations on a broad reworking of the military alliance with Washington are reportedly bogging down because the government is divided over just how far Japan should follow Washington’s call.

The bigger question is whether Japan should even be a military power.

The U.S.-led occupation forces disbanded Japan’s military after World War II and helped write a constitution that barred Japan from using ?the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.?

Washington soon realized it needed to build an ally to counter communism in Asia, and Japan passed a law in 1954 that paved the way for establishing its Self-Defense Forces. Though the decision was denounced by many who saw it as unconstitutional, the government argued that the military force is legal because it is strictly defense-oriented.

That argument is becoming hard to sustain.

Japan has more than 240,000 active-duty troops and an annual defense budget bigger than Britain’s. Its air force has more than 160 F-15s and its spy satellites keep watch on North Korea.

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