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The Yomiuri Shimbun

January 17, 2011

Reformation of Japan / Interview with William Cohen

Japan has been punching below its weight in the international community and needs to assume an international role more consistent with its economic power and capability, according to former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.

In the 10th in a Yomiuri Shimbun series of interviews with intellectuals at home and abroad about their prescriptions for bringing sweeping reforms to Japan, Cohen expressed support for Japan's possible lifting of a ban on weapons exports and urged Japan to strengthen its defensive capabilities to indicate it will not yield to incursions on its territories.

Following are excerpts of the interview conducted by Michiro Okamato, chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun's General Bureau of the Americas.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: How has the Japan-U.S. alliance changed since the days you were defense secretary and now, especially after the Democratic Party of Japan took power in September 2009?

William Cohen: I think part of the problem is you have had one party that has been in control for many, many years. You have a new party that comes in, and frankly it's to be expected that there would be some transition points along the way.

One way [to strengthen the alliance] is to have a very clear declaration of what our strategic goals are. Do we see the world the same way? Do we see the threats the same way? And then if we do, what are the things that we need to do to protect our people to ensure the security of our respective countries and regions?

What is Japan's role? This concern about you're not No. 2, economically you're No. 3. Close. There's not that much difference.

I have had this conversation with many of my counterparts over the years about Japan becoming a more normal country, and I said, "Well, what does that mean?" It means in order to be a country of economic power and prowess and capability of Japan, it has to assume a role consistent with that power. And so far, for many, many years it has been focused inward. So now it has to be more focused outward because the world is smaller. Japan can play a better role than it has been playing--or I should say, a greater role than it has been playing.

You've been doing some of it in terms of helping in counterterrorism, helping in counterpiracy off the coast of Somalia. You have been supporting the effort in Afghanistan. It's not normal if you've got this capability and you're not using it because of historical reasons. So we say, you should be doing much more. We have a phrase "punch below your weight." In other words, you have a much stronger punch than you have been using.

You have been focused so internally, now it's time to say, "What can we do in terms of our relationship with the U.S., our relationship with the ASEAN countries and others? How do we contribute now to the health and safety of the entire region?"

I think that's how Japan should look forward, saying, "We're a great country and we've got wonderful technology." There's been debate now about how Japanese technology can be used and should be used in terms of export, particularly in military.

I spent a lot of time traveling to Japan over the years, and I still see Japan as our rock, and the security point of view certainly is of a rock in the Asia-Pacific region.

We look to China as Japan looks to China as a big, powerful country that's going to grow economically and militarily. But on the other hand, we've got this relationship that is our anchor and Japan working with its democratic allies throughout the region with Australia, with the U.S., South Korea--hopefully one Korea, eventually. This is something that the Japanese people have to decide.

Q: The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Ginowan remains unresolved. How should the United States and the DPJ-led administration deal with this issue?

A: They should be very candid and forthright.

We've been talking about this for 15-plus years. There are no real alternatives and the more you keep deferring it the worse it gets. It doesn't benefit the Okinawans, it doesn't benefit the U.S., it doesn't contribute to security. I think the Japanese government has to face up by saying this is the best solution.

Sometimes political leaders have to be very direct to their constituency by saying, "We've looked at all options, we can't find a better one than they proposed." We're so focused on Futenma that it overshadows all of the other interests we have. We have allowed this one thing to fester and then cast a shadow over our relationship, which is strategic in nature.

Q: How should we deal with North Korea? Last year, it sank a South Korean warship and attacked a South Korean island.

A: The South Koreans have acted with great restraint. I think the U.S., Japan and South Korea have to always coordinate on their policies to make sure no one is taking any action that in any way compromises the integrity of that relationship. I think we have to continue to press the North Koreans to accept responsibility for what they have done, namely the sinking of the Cheonan. They attacked the Cheonan, and they have refused to acknowledge any responsibility.

But this is what [North Korea] does. This has been history repeating itself over and over again. They take aggressive action which is totally inconsistent with the protestations about wanting a peaceful resolution.

China must exert more pressure. China insists that it's limited in its ability to influence the North Koreans, but I think they can do more and I think they have to do more.

I think you have to impress upon the North Koreans that this may be existential for you here, that we're not going to continue--we meaning China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, the U.S.--to tolerate what you have been doing because you always do something destructive and then you force everyone to come back and then basically reward you for coming back to the table. And we can't do that. If you are always under a hair trigger, or a threat that they might start something that could completely get out of control, involving China, South Korea, U.S., Japan, Russia, then that's not good for anyone in the region.

Q: In a recent MSNBC interview discussing the recent show of force by the North Koreans, you mentioned you would "even recommend putting some F-22s over in Okinawa just on a contingent basis for some time to come." Could you elaborate on your position?

A: Basically, we anticipate using our own assets in Japan, Okinawa and elsewhere. We are not asking Japan to participate in that. We are there also to help defend Japan in terms of if North Korea should fire missiles at or over Japanese territory. But our own plans are contingent upon our own ability to operate with the help of Japanese authorities, but we're not asking Japan to participate.

Q: How do you view China's military expansion? How will the United States manage a rising China and its territorial claims within the East and South China seas?

A: I think that China's expansion, its increase in military power, is an inevitability, given the strength of their economy, given the fact that they are now actively searching for resources that are global in nature. Eventually they will start wanting to deploy assets that will protect them. I think that's just inevitable.

But it should not assume that its military power can be used to jeopardize the international need for stability.

Q: In this vein, Japan is concerned about the recent incident and continued tensions around the Senkaku Islands. How did you see the incident and how do you evaluate the way the government handled it?

A: Well, I think they were under very serious pressure from the Chinese. I think that it calls for, No. 1, Japan to strengthen its own defensive capabilities to indicate that it is not going to yield to incursions, encroachments upon that territory. And that while it is seeking to avoid any kind of confrontational crisis it will defend its interests. I think by sending that strong signal then also having that reaffirmed by the international community, I think is the way to move forward.

Q: The government considered lifting a ban on weapons exports, but eventually backpedaled. Do you think the ban should be lifted?

A: I've been in favor of this for some time. I think it's important that Japanese technology, that you be allowed to export that technology. I think the United States would find it very beneficial, as well as others, so it's something I've been supportive of.

Q: I'd like to ask about the Obama administration's nuclear policy and the implications for Japan.

A: I think the Obama administration is committed to something that Ronald Reagan was committed to, that is the eventual--and it's not going to be in my lifetime--elimination of nuclear weapons.

We still have more than enough nuclear weapons to deter any country from attacking another country, and I think that both Russia and we have more than enough as a deterrent--and that would include a deterrent to China as well.

We have supported countries to develop a national missile defense system, and I think that is something that will be important for Japan as well.

Much depends upon what the national politics of Japan is going to be. I think that one answer is to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Japan to cooperate and perhaps develop a much greater capability so you have the U.S. so-called nuclear umbrella, which includes offensive capability and also defensive. That's the best hedge against anyone firing a nuclear weapon.


Cohen, 70, is a former representative and senator from Maine who served in the U.S House of Representatives in 1973-79 and then the Senate in 1979-97. He served as defense secretary in 1997-2001 during the Clinton administration. He was defense secretary at the time of the December 1998 bombing of Iraq, code-named Operation Desert Fox, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

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