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Okinawa: Japan is recalibrating its historical ties with its traditional protector and its traditional rivalKoichi Kamoshida

Should Washington respond to a rising China by bypassing Japan or reinvigorating the U.S.-Japan alliance? A healthy U.S. alliance is insurance for Japan against a future China threat. Good relations with China are a hedge against an unreliable U.S. ally.

The future of American bases and the more than 40,000 troops in Japan has become unexpectedly contentious. In 2006, after a decade of negotiations, the two countries agreed to relocate 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and another 2,000 from crowded Futenma to less populated Nago on Okinawa's northern coast. New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, having campaigned on the promise of removing the base from Okinawa, has resisted honouring the 2006 pact. Tokyo's proposal for an East Asian community around China and Japan that excludes the U.S. has also ruffled U.S. sensibility.

Japan's remarkable postwar recovery was underwritten by the Americans. Must gratitude for the past translate into a willingness to play host to U.S. bases and soldiers permanently? They are resented for the symbolism of the victorious power occupying the defeated one, for the continuing dilution of Japanese sovereignty that keeps U.S. soldiers outside the reach of Japanese law even for assaults on Japanese civilians, and for their noise and social pollution.

By insisting on the base agreement as a test of commitment to the alliance, Washington risks a rupture - a mistake it made with New Zealand in the 1980s over visits by its nuclear ships. If the alliance is in the security interests of both countries, the partnership is worth preserving.

The new generation of leaders in Tokyo has dim memories of the Second World War, diminished guilt for it and no internalized sense of dependence on the U.S. after the war. Temperamentally no longer submissive, they are unmoved by U.S. demands that fealty to Washington should override promises to Japanese voters. Their efforts to recalibrate the alliance reflect the loosening of familiar emotional moorings in postwar Japanese foreign policy and an effort to free Tokyo of a competing historical guilt over what happened in, and to, Okinawa.

Washington should not blame the problems on an inexperienced and populist government that needs some sharp lessons in realism. The base dispute is a lightning rod for differences over how to manage a changing political landscape in Japan and a geostrategic one in Asia. Tokyo is recalibrating its historical ties with its traditional protector and its traditional rival. China seems intent on making that extra effort to present a friendlier face to nudge the process along of counterbalancing U.S. influence. Yet, there's also lingering suspicion of China and resistance/resentment to ceding alpha status to it.

Demographics will drive Japan's social and security policy. Its declining population will shrink by a third to under 90 million by 2055. The over 65s will double to 40 per cent. Still rich, Japan will live off, but not create, new wealth. Household wealth will return to levels of 15 years ago. This will erode Japan's ability to pursue a muscular military or an aggressive foreign policy and cost it relative global status. By the same token, it should lessen apprehensions about Japan and diminish regional tensions.

Can Japan achieve political reforms and economic recovery? Will it become a normal country whose industrial muscle translates into power and influence? A nuclear power? Can it say no to Washington or will it remain an ATM bankrolling U.S. global policy?

Many question marks, an aging and shrinking population, a stagnant and contracting economy, and a political culture that puts governments in office but not in power: These are not ingredients to instill confidence in a revived Japan. Yet, history offers a caution against writing off Japan too hastily. It has shown superhuman ability to emerge triumphant from crises through mass mobilization of the collective identity, at extraordinary personal and national cost and effort, in astonishingly short bursts of time.

The most technologically advanced, richest and best educated country in Asia cannot be written off. If Asia turns to co-operation, Japanese money will underwrite the institutional arrangements and agreed deliverables. If Asia turns to Sino-U.S. confrontation, Japan will anchor any forward U.S. strategy. If Japan is ignored, if Washington tries to use its relationship with China to shape the environment into which Japan fades quietly into the sunset, Tokyo can play spoiler for most initiatives and even embrace the bomb.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs.