Aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan: New symbol of US in Asia
SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — The United States is sending an aircraft carrier named after an iconic, defense hawk president to be its new face in Asia.
On Monday, the flattop Ronald Reagan departed San Diego Bay, bound for Japan to become the only U.S. carrier stationed abroad. It replaces the George Washington, which is coming home for a nuclear overhaul after being assigned to Japan since 2008.
In Asia, where symbolism matters, the timing is interesting.
The Obama administration has made a point of sending its most capable naval assets to Asia, as part of the so-called Rebalance to the Pacific strategy. The Navy says the Reagan — sometimes called "America's flagship" — is its most up-to-date aircraft carrier after two recent multimillion-dollar upgrades.
Some in Asia view this as a show of force by the United States, just as China is trying to expand its turf by building artificial islands in contested waters.
Meanwhile, Japan is in the middle of a debate over its identity.
Over the weekend, large but peaceful protests broke out in response to Japanese legislation expanding the abilities of the nation's military — which, by its post-World War II constitution, is supposed to be only for self defense.
But academics and analysts say Japan has largely gotten over its "nuclear allergy," which led to protests when the first American nuclear carrier was assigned to Yokosuka, home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.
Japan recently launched its second Izumo-class warship, the helicopter destroyer Kaga, reported to be almost as big as its World War II-era battleships, though lighter.
Young people in Asia may not even remember Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor and two-term president from 1981 to '89.
But for those who do, there's prestige in the name.
Scholars and Asia experts said this assignment of Reagan's namesake warship will likely be seen as a strong move.
"East Asia is huge on symbolism, perhaps the Japanese people in particular," said Yi Sun, University of San Diego professor of East Asian history.
For example, the nation was thrilled in 2013 when Caroline Kennedy was named ambassador because of her presidential lineage.
"With the name association, the fact that the USS Reagan is going to Japan, it's going to be really, really enthusiastically received both by the government and the populace in general," Sun said.
Whether or not you agree with Reagan's politics, he is generally regarded as a successful, two-term president, said defense analyst Rudy deLeon, an Asia specialist at the Center for American Progress.
"We are sending one of the top-of-the-line carriers. It's a prestigious president and a prestigious ship."
In Asia, Reagan was known for bolstering alliances with both Japan and to some degree China, as a hedge against the Soviet Union during the final years of the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War, which Reagan ushered in, resulted in a globalism that boosted most Asian economies.
Reagan was probably the first post-World War II president to be on a nickname basis with a Japanese prime minister. The cordial relationship helped smooth tensions over trade regulations as Japanese cars began to affect the American market.
Then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, a popular leader, finessed the climate on defense — pushing to increase military spending despite the Japanese identity as a pacifistic nation, and the only one that has ever been hit with atomic bombs.
Japan is still wrestling with that topic.
Back in the mid-1980s, if a U.S. submarine or surface ship with nuclear capabilities wanted to stop at a Japanese port, there was tension.
Steven Vogel, now a political science professor at in the University of California Berkeley, saw it firsthand as a reporter for the Japan Times.
"It was a big deal. Because they had these anti-nuclear principles," said Vogel, a Japan scholar.
"But the sensitivity is a little bit less than it was then, particularly to the military nature of the U.S.-Japan relationship," he said.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown reportedly heightened awareness again.
"There is a very strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, and it spills over into nuclear power, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and etc," said T.J. Pempel, also a U.C. Berkeley political science professor and Asia expert.
But, he added, the "nuclear allergy" has lessened over the decades.
"Like a lot of allergies, the better your inoculation, the less the allergy bothers you as time goes on," Pempel said.
"So the fact that the George Washington was there, and is being replaced by another nuclear-power ship, is probably going to be taken by a much larger group of people as normal."
As for the Navy, officials stress that U.S. aircraft carriers have been assigned to Japan since 1973 — so the cycling through of flattops is not meant as a show of force to China.
The current captain of the Reagan said he has seen concrete signs that the ship will be well received.
The then-San Diego flattop was near Japan in 2011 when the tsunami hit. It was one of the first to render aid.
On Monday, Capt. Chris Bolt said the Japanese people haven't forgotten.
"The nation of Japan and the people of Japan — they still send us stuff in thanks for what we did back in 2011," he said.
"I get letters literally every week."
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