Despite claims by Washington and Tokyo that the controversy over the relocation of a Marine Air Base in Okinawa has been resolved, it seems increasingly likely that this will become a recurring crisis, threatening to undermine the U.S.-Japan relationship, unless addressed appropriately.
Washington has argued that the forces stationed in Okinawa are critically important to its force structure on the island and in the region. After some hesitation, the government in Tokyo has backed the relocation plan, which would transfer some of the Marines to Guam and some to a new base to be built in Okinawa. But local opposition to the relocation of Futenma is likely to lead to domestic political turmoil that will spill over to the alliance. As recent elections in Okinawa have shown, there remains significant local opposition to the relocation plan, and the stage has been set for a showdown with Tokyo.
Further complicating matters is Washington’s expectation of greater cost-sharing and Japanese engagement implicit in the realignment agreement. It is difficult to see how Tokyo will meet these expectations given its current financial state, and social attitudes toward military force. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the Futenma controversy has been that it has highlighted the gulf between U.S. expectations and Japanese capabilities.
In a recent conference on U.S.-Japan relations, Richard Armitage said that, “we must confront reality, even if that reality is unpleasant.” The controversy over Futenma has brought that unpleasant reality to the fore. In order to prevent the alliance from unraveling, the United States and Japan must take immediate steps to address both the superficial and foundational problems Futenma has exposed.
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