By John Thorlin, NSJ Digest Editor –
On June 2, 2010, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned. Though he poetically (or just strangely) claimed that a Japanese songbird he had seen during a recent trip to Korea had signaled to him that it was time to go, the real driving force behind the move was his failure to strike a deal to move the United States’ Futenma air base off of Okinawa. His party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), rose to power after a half-century out of government partially due to campaign promises to make Japan a “more equal” partner in its alliance with the United States.
While the United States and Japan have haggled over the base in Okinawa, Russia and Ukraine have come to an agreement extending Russia’s lease on Sevastopol, a port city in Ukraine, to 2042. There had been considerable anxiety on the part of Russian strategists that if the lease expired later this decade as planned, Russia would lose the primary base of its Black Sea Fleet and, potentially, some of its ability to project force in the region.
These bases, each in a region of vital importance to the respective countries involved, illustrate two totally different approaches to similar problems. The Japanese difficulty in negotiating an end to the U.S. presence on Okinawa shows the success of alliance and basing agreements based on the self-interest of the host country. Given the ongoing crisis regarding North Korea, the Chinese navy’s rapid expansion, and ongoing Chinese encroachments on Japanese territorial waters, it should not be surprising that the Japanese public has responded tepidly to proposals that would lessen the protection that the U.S. military base provides. The Sevastopol agreement, by contrast, is based much more on implicit threats and partisan political differences. In other words, the Sevastopol agreement, while definitely a win for hardball Russian foreign policy, does not and cannot create or signify a long-term alliance akin to the U.S.-Japan relationship.
The Black Sea has been a focal point of Russian strategy for centuries, and Sevastopol has been the key to Russia’s Black Sea influence. Indeed, the city was founded as a base for a naval squadron in the same year (1783) that Prince Potemkin founded the Black Sea Fleet. The base is thus understandably seen by many Russians, including President Medvedev, as a historic symbol of Russian power and an important factor in guaranteeing the stability of the region. During the Cold War naval standoffs in the Mediterranean, the participating Soviet ships were part of the Black Sea Fleet. In the recent Russia-Georgia War, the Russians sortied elements of the Black Sea Fleet to fight Georgian naval units and land Russian troops. Replacing Sevastopol would be hugely expensive and send a strong symbolic message that the Russian navy is slowly ceding its power in the Black Sea.
U.S. ties to Okinawa do not go back as far, but the geostrategic imperative to keep the base is keenly felt by U.S. planners. After U.S. forces took the island near the end of World War II, it played in important role in plans for a potential nuclear confrontation with the Soviets. During the Vietnam War, many heavy bomber sorties were launched from Okinawa. Today, the island’s proximity to Taiwan and China give it an obvious strategic significance.
The role of internal politics shows clearly the important differences in U.S.-Japan and Russia-Ukraine relations. In Japan, the DPJ maintains a policy toward the United States that is not at all shared by the center-right opposition, the Liberal Democratic Party. Under Liberal Democrat rule, the Japanese even sent non-combat soldiers to Iraq. However, partisan differences were not enough to sway the U.S.-Japan alliance, as evidenced by the downfall of Prime Minister Hatoyama. Hatoyama himself and the Japanese public at large agreed on the necessity of the U.S. alliance despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary.
The Sevastopol agreement, by contrast, represents a partisan political victory that may not have happened at all had the last Ukrainian elections turned out slightly differently. President Victor Yanukovych represents the pro-Russia mentality largely associated with the Crimean and eastern sections of the country. His ascension to power constituted a nearly 180-degree turnaround from the policy of the previous administration, which sought full membership in the NATO alliance and closer association with the West. During the Russia-Georgia War, the pro-NATO Ukrainian government even threatened to blockade the Black Sea Fleet as a gesture of solidarity with Georgia.
Recurring crises and threats arising out of the transport of Russian natural gas through Ukraine and the potential for separatism in the majority-Russian Crimea mean that Ukraine’s accommodation with Russia is made necessary not out of self-interest but fear. A closer alignment with Russia lowers the likelihood of a future conflict with that nation. After Georgia’s recent disastrous defiance of Russia, it is not surprising that Ukrainians feel the need to placate its neighbor.
The diametrically opposed views on alliances held by the major Ukrainian parties suggests the ephemeral nature of any Russia-Ukraine agreement. What will happen to the Russo-Ukrainian alliance in two years when the pro-West party returns to power? While the U.S.-Japan alliance ebbs and flows in strength, the fundamental alignment of those two countries’ interests have proved enduring in the face of political change.
Image Courtesy of the BBC