- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

The scene had a decidedly surreal quality: Before an amused and startled crowd that included President George W. Bush, a rock star-struck Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi crooned in the Jungle Room of Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion.

Mr. Koizumi performed a karaoke-influenced interpretation of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” then, strumming an air guitar, mimicked the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Pop celebrities, a homage to Elvis, an international mocker gawking with affable goofiness — the TV cameras couldn’t get enough of the public kitsch.

The real story of this summit is cement, however, not kitsch — the cement of a solid 21st-century American-Japanese alliance.

As the Cold War faded in the early 1990s, several Japanese opinion leaders questioned the U.S.-Japan relationship. With Russia no longer an immediate threat, development of Siberia’s natural resources enticed Japan — and in that game, America represented competition. U.S. military bases on Okinawa were a particular thorn. Many Americans carped that wealthy Japan failed to carry its fair share of the defense burden — ironic, given Japan’s constitutional military limitations imposed by the United States after World War II.

But times change, and so do threats.

The North Korean missiles fired Tuesday are big news, but they aren’t the strategic shocker. The shocker occurred in August 1998, when Pyongyang tested a long-range ballistic missile. That launch revitalized the U.S.-Japan alliance and blew away any legitimate arguments that the United States could wait to develop and deploy ballistic missile defenses.

Pyongyang’s 1998 test shot demonstrated that Japan and the United States — and for that matter, Europe — are vulnerable to rogue missile attack, and it’s utterly false to argue otherwise. It meant U.S. diplomacy and the world economy are potential hostages to missile blackmail by regional tinpots.

Japan got North Korea’s message. The Japanese also observed China’s steady military modernization and concluded the logical, most impressive and most reliable “strategic balance” to China is the United States. Japan and the United States began discussing a “joint ballistic missile defense shield” that would protect Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. Of course, such a system would also provide South Korea with a degree of protection, as well as the continental United States.

On June 23 of this year, the United States and Japan signed an agreement to jointly produce anti-missile missiles. The agreement formalized the existing (though often behind-the-scenes) cooperation on anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology.

U.S. and Japanese military cooperation includes surveillance and tracking operations. A new early warning X-Band radar system is located at a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force base in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture. A U.S. spokesman said the radar would gather critical data on North Korean missile launches.

The U.S. will send several batteries of Patriot PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability-3) anti-theater ballistic missiles to protect Okinawa. The PAC-3, unlike the Patriot PAC-2 of the 1991 Gulf war, is a true anti-missile missile. However, its range is limited and it is ineffective against long-range, high-speed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Still, the PAC-3 will add to a “layered” ABM defense that includes interceptor missiles on board U.S. Aegis cruisers and the handful of long-range ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. If the situation dictates, Okinawa-based Patriot batteries can quickly move to Japan and South Korea.

In May, the Honolulu Bulletin reported that the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie successfully intercepted a target missile using an improved U.S. Navy Standard-2 interceptor missile. The Lake Erie also test-fired an advanced Standard-3 anti-missile missile. Japan has destroyers with the Aegis radar system, which can detect and track ballistic missiles. The Japanese destroyers would operate as electronic eyes for a regional ABM system.

The United States and Japan are also exploring ways to more effectively integrate U.S. and Japanese ground forces. The Japanese military has participated in overseas operations and gained experience. For two years, Japan deployed 5,500 troops in Iraq, and they served quite effectively with other coalition forces.

North Korea recently threatened “annihilating strikes and nuclear war” if the United States launches a pre-emptive attack on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons facilities. Bluster? Possibly — but SCUDs splashing in the Sea of Japan say otherwise. If bluster turns to bombs, Washington and Tokyo intend to be ready.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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