TOKYO — When President Clinton signed a 1994 agreement promising to “respect” the territorial integrity of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons, there was little thought then of how that obscure diplomatic pact — the Budapest Memorandum — might affect the long-running defense partnership between the United States and Japan.
But as U.S. officials have distanced themselves from the Budapest Memorandum in light of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, calling promises made in Budapest “nonbinding,” the U.S. is being forced at the same time to make reassurances in Asia. Japanese officials, a senior U.S. military official said, “keep asking, ‘Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?’ ”
For Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who arrived in Tokyo on Saturday for two days of talks with Japan’s leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, America’s longstanding promise to protect Japan against hostile nations — read China and North Korea — has come under the microscope.
The U.S. response to the Russian takeover of Crimea, which President Obama has condemned while ruling out U.S. military action, has caused deep concern among already skittish Japanese officials.
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“The Crimea is a game-changer,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former adviser to Abe who is research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo. “This is not fire on a distant shore for us. What is happening is another attempt by a rising power to change the status quo.” He pointed as an example to China’s challenge to Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands, the uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea that China claims under the name Diaoyu Islands.
Obama administration officials say they stand by the U.S. commitment to protect Japan, while refraining from explicitly stating that the U.S. would intervene militarily in the Senkakus’ dispute.
“There is no indication or weakness on the part of the United States as to our complete and absolute commitment to the security of Japan,” Hagel said, speaking aboard his flight to Japan.
“We will make that again clear over the next two weeks,” he added, referring to his meetings with the Japanese and Obama’s planned trip to the region later this month.
Upon landing at Yokota Air Base just outside Tokyo to speak to a group of U.S. and Japanese troops, Hagel said he was in Japan to reaffirm America’s “continued commitment to our partnership, our friendship and our treaty obligations.”
A Defense Department official traveling with Hagel pointed Saturday to the mutual security treaty between the U.S. and Japan as proof that the U.S. would protect Japan if necessary. “There is absolutely no wavering,” he said.
But in meetings in the past few weeks, Obama administration officials said, Japanese officials have been seeking reassurances that the security treaty will apply to the Senkakus.
Last year, China set off a trans-Pacific uproar when it declared that an “air-defense identification zone” gave it the right to identify and possibly take military action against aircraft near the islands. Japan refused to recognize China’s claim, and the U.S. has been defying China ever since by sending military planes into the zone unannounced, even as the Obama administration advised U.S. commercial airlines to comply with China’s demand and notify China in advance of flights.
U.S. officials say there is a wealth of difference between Ukraine and Japan, and between Crimea and the Senkakus. And, they say, there is a big difference between the Budapest Memorandum and the mutual security treaty with Japan that was signed in 1952 and has redefined U.S.-Japanese relations.
The treaty, which also provides for the continued presence of U.S. military bases in Japan, establishes that any attack against Japan would require the United States to respond. The Budapest Memorandum, by contrast, simply refers to security assurances for Ukraine that are not defined and have been widely interpreted as less than a military guarantee of intervention.
Still, some Japanese analysts said the U.S. response to the Crimea crisis had not inspired confidence. They expressed fears that the Obama administration’s strategic refocus on Asia, will weaken as the United States commits more forces to counterbalance Russia.
“The Crimea makes us feel uneasy about whether the United States has not only the resolve but the strength to stop China,” said Satoru Nagao, an expert on security issues at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. “Between the Pentagon budget cuts, and the need to put more forces in Europe, can the United States still offer a credible deterrence?”
Specifically, some analysts said they feared China might feel emboldened by the U.S. response to Crimea to try something similar in Senkaku/Diaoyu.