Futenma protestFor the past 60 years, the Japanese have relied on the U.S. military to underwrite their national security, thus allowing them to pursue a pragmatic strategy of economic development as the core of their domestic and foreign policy. This strategy has achieved mixed results. While Japan has made gains through international economic engagement, many in the Japanese government now view such a strategy as limiting Japanese influence. As a result, they advocate a grand strategy of “comprehensive security” that relies on three equal pillars of military security, economic diplomacy, and multilateral engagement. Already, the Japanese government has systematically eroded the institutional obstructions, legal restrictions and social taboos that have constrained military enhancement. This shift in strategy to establish a more muscular Japan would also require a restructuring of the US-Japan security alliance.

Over the last six decades, Japan has succeeded in rebuilding a shattered nation thanks in no small part to the security guarantee and preferential trade policies offered by the United States. In return, the Japanese have given up sovereignty over U.S. military installations on Japan, while paying to maintain them. The United States has benefited from this arrangement as the bases on Japan have helped project American power into the Western Pacific. In addition to gaining ‘an unsinkable aircraft carrier’ in the Pacific, the United States has been able to maintain a forward military presence that is significantly cheaper because of Japanese contributions to base maintenance. Originally intended to help stem the spread of communism, and protect a strategic economic ally, the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific has become an integral factor in sustaining U.S. global hegemony, particularly as a result of the increasing importance of East Asia to the global economy.

But the underlying nature of the U.S.-Japan Security alliance is changing. There is growing debate in Japan over the utility of the alliance in its current form. This is the result of an increasingly capable Japan, which is attempting to tread a fine line to avoid both entrapment and abandonment.

This debate over the future role of Japan in the alliance is largely informed by the policy preferences of Japanese political factions that seek to realize opposing visions of Japan on the international stage. One vision is of a broadly and thoroughly independent and capable Japan, while at the other end is a vision of Japan that is essentially a mercantile power that rejects military power. These are certainly not the only two preferences, but they are indicative of the intense domestic political debate occurring in Japan over the continued utility of the security alliance. The United States, too, is trying to adapt its alliance with Japan to a changing security environment, which includes the rise of China.

Although the clash between Washington and Tokyo over U.S. military bases on Okinawa has been officially treated as a relatively minor dispute, it has laid bare very serious underlying problems that will continue to plague the alliance. The United States expects greater Japanese engagement and cost-sharing to ensure regional security. To maintain regional stability, Japan must either become more engaged (requiring increases in military spending, and the political and social will to change existing laws and norms) or the alliance must remain asymmetric. Both of these alternatives face perhaps insurmountable obstacles in the local opposition to base expansion and the financial realities facing Japan and the United States.

The Stakes of the Conflict

The proposed relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa has been met by fierce local opposition and has led to a period of extended tension between the United States and Japan as the security alliance approaches its 50th anniversary. This opposition stems from the problems of pollution, crime, environmental degradation, and safety that the base presents. These problems are compounded by the continued financial burden placed on the Japanese people through Host Nation Support, and the denial of complete territorial sovereignty that the base represents.

According to the 2006 force realignment agreement between Washington and Tokyo, reaffirmed in May 2010, the active component of MCAS Futenma, Marine Air Group 36 will be relocated to another facility to be built in Henoko, attached to Camp Schwab. Following the completion of the facility at Henoko, control of MCAS Futenma would be returned to Japan. Additionally, 8,000 marines from the III Marine Expeditionary Force stationed on Okinawa will be moved to Guam, along with approximately 9,000 dependents. The units being withdrawn to Guam comprise much of the command element of the III MEF and will include the following: III MEF Command Element, 3rd Marine Division Headquarters, 3rd Marine Logistics Group Headquarters, 1st Marine Air Wing Headquarters, and the 12th Marine Regiment Headquarters. Finally, the Japanese government will contribute $6.09 billion of the estimated $10.27 billion cost of the relocation of troops to Guam as well as the relocation of Marine Aircraft Group 36.

The units stationed at Futenma constitute Marine Air Group 36, the aerial component of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, which is stationed throughout Okinawa. Marine Air Group 36 is tasked with, “Provid[ing] all weather, day and night assault support aircraft capable of operating from amphibious ships, austere expeditionary airfields and forward operating bases ashore, as an integral part of the Aviation Combat Element of a Marine Air/Ground Task Force.” To accomplish these objectives Marine Air Group 36 operates two squadrons of CH-46E Sea Knight medium transport helicopters, one squadron of KC-130J aerial refueling and transport aircraft, all supported by a marine aviation logistics squadron.

The United States has argued that the Marine Corps facility at Futenma is necessary for several missions – to counter a rising China, to deal with a contingency on the Korean peninsula, to protect sea lanes in the region, and to help mount humanitarian missions. The narrow question is whether the relatively small force of Marines is critically necessary for these missions. The larger issue is how the United States and Japan view these missions and their respective roles in carrying them out.


China has made huge strides in increasing its military power, which worries Japan. China has invested heavily in developing its own blue water navy as well as weapons systems such as its anti-carrier missile, the Dong Feng 21D, that challenge the alliance’s regional military supremacy. The lack of transparency that has accompanied China’s military advancement has worried both U.S. and Japanese policymakers. Japan has limited hard-power options to respond to potential Chinese aggression and relies heavily on American deterrence to forestall major conflict. The III Marine Expeditionary Force stationed on Okinawa makes up a core pillar of the American strategy of deterrence. Similar to the “Berlin tripwire” during the Cold War, the III Marine Expeditionary Force constitutes a credible U.S. commitment to Japanese security.

The possibility of China aggressively absorbing Taiwan is of chief concern to Japanese national security. Taiwan, after all, is close to important shipping lanes vital to Japanese trade. All the cargo entering and exiting southern Japan traverses these lanes. The repossession of Taiwan would put China in a position to blockade southern Japan. Such a hostile repossession would also seriously damage U.S. commitment to extended deterrence since it would demonstrate that the United States didn’t want to or couldn’t defend Taiwan. Japanese security, and to a large extent, regional stability is built on the foundation of this notion of extended deterrence. The United States also has an interest in an autonomous Taiwan as a balance against China in order to maintain the regional status quo. The relationship between Taiwan and the United States has been a major source of tension between the United States and China, which has been exacerbated by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas also complicate relations among China, Japan, and the United States. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments dispute the demarcation of international boundaries in the East China Sea, with each claiming the other is infringing on its territorial sovereignty. The United States, meanwhile, considers the South China Sea to be international waters, while the Chinese consider it an area subject to their national sovereignty.

The most important role of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa is to deter Chinese aggression toward Taiwan as well as in the East and South China Seas. The III Marine Expeditionary Force is the most immediate U.S. force, which could respond to a crisis as a result of conflict over Taiwan. It is also ideally positioned to help resolve potential flash points between China and Japan resulting from sovereignty issues over disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands, near Okinawa.

Should conflict arise over Taiwan, the III Marine Expeditionary Force would likely play an ancillary role given that the United States would likely dispatch a carrier strike group to the area. Although the III Marine Expeditionary Force could quickly react to the situation, its ability to influence events may be limited due to its size.

The United States and Japan also consider the protection of major sea lines of communication, particularly the Strait of Malacca and the Bashi Channel, to be vital to alliance security. A tremendous amount of trade flows through this region, feeding the economies of Japan and the United States. Disruption of this flow would be potentially devastating. U.S. Marines stationed on Okinawa are ideally placed to respond to crises involving the sea lines of communication.

However, both countries have other forces suited to address this issue. The Japanese coast guard, the Maritime Self Defense Force, the U.S. Navy, and the coast guards of neighboring states police this area and protect vessels from piracy. In the case of state encroachment, the United States would likely rely on vessels from the U.S. 7th fleet, which patrol the region and would be ideally placed and capable of responding. In the event of a traditional confrontation over the sea lines of communication, however, the United States would likely rely on naval its forces, in combination with the III Marine Expeditionary Force.

North Korea and Humanitarian Missions

In his announcement that Japan would follow through with the 2006 agreement, former Prime Minister Hatoyama invoked the threat of North Korea as an explanation for his decision to acquiesce to U.S. pressure. This argument was a weak attempt to deflect responsibility for his administration’s messy handling of the issue. After all, the notion that the III Marine Expeditionary Force contributes greatly to protection against North Korean aggression is questionable. The United States currently maintains close to 28,000 troops in South Korea, a force capable of both deterring and responding to North Korean aggression. Furthermore, elements of the 7th fleet, including the George Washington Carrier Strike Force, the Marine Air Station at Iwakuni, and the 5th Air Force make up a more than sufficient force to deter and counter North Korean aggression. The III Marine Expeditionary Force would undoubtedly contribute in the event of conflict with North Korea, and U.S. military officials argue that units from the III Marine Expeditionary Force would be active in securing North Korean nuclear sites. However the III Marine Expeditionary Force would not be an essential part of any force deterring or confronting North Korea.

U.S. forces on Okinawa have acted as a first-responder to humanitarian crises, providing initial security and logistical support. Units from Air Station Futenma have responded to several recent humanitarian crises including the 2004 tsunami, the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The rapid response ability afforded by units based at Futenma make the III Marine Expeditionary Force particularly adept at engaging in humanitarian missions.

However, units from the III Marine Expeditionary Force are not necessarily essential to humanitarian operations. The 7th fleet has typically been responsible for channeling aid to the disaster sites in the region. The Japanese Coast Guard and the Maritime Self Defense Force have also been heavily involved in humanitarian missions. Furthermore, the Japanese see involvement in humanitarian missions as a particularly important reason to further military development as well a way to legitimize military action and gain stronger standing within the international community. Increased Japanese engagement in humanitarian missions would allow for the United States to take a back seat in this capacity and would lower its costs.

The Future of Futenma

The United States has offered four main reasons for maintaining the Marines at Futenma: defending Taiwan, protecting sea lanes, dealing with North Korea, and helping out during humanitarian crises. Of the four, the utility of the III Marine Expeditionary Force in the North Korea contingency is unconvincing due to the prevalence of other forces more able to deter or counter any act of aggression. The contingencies regarding the safety of the sea lines of communication and humanitarian operations would both involve elements of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, but it is by no means pivotal to success.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force does contribute to deterring Chinese expansion and aggression in the East China Sea and toward Taiwan. This appears to be the most powerful argument for the continued operation of the III Marine Expeditionary Force out of Okinawa. The positioning of the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, which reinforces U.S. commitment to Japanese security, is a costly signal to regional challengers of the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence. Moreover, the perception that extended U.S. deterrence is credible is of vital importance to the Japanese military. According to Vice Admiral Kaneda (MSDF Ret.) “Once the U.S. defense is no longer perceived as credible, we will be in a global multi-polar military age which will make the region much less predictable.” However, here too, other forces in the region contribute to providing extended deterrence, including the U.S. 7th fleet and the 5th Air Force. Furthermore, an increase in the economic ties among all the major actors – the United States, Japan, China, and Taiwan – help to lower tensions and make conflict much more unlikely.

In the end, the tangible contributions of the III Marine Expeditionary Force to the strategy of deterring China, and to a lesser extent, North Korea, are debatable, and to many, not worth the cost. However, there are no real metrics by which to measure the effectiveness of a strategy of deterrence other than that conflict has or has not broken out. But both the United States and Japan are loath to simply abandon a strategy that has contributed to regional stability.

By relocating Marine Air Group 36 from Air Station Futenma to a planned base in Henoko, the United States will preserve a key element of the III Marine Expeditionary Force. The 2006 realignment agreement will move command elements of the III Marine Expeditionary Force from Okinawa to Guam, while maintaining the overall operational capacities of the force – the U.S. military’s preferred solution.

Politically, however, this compromise is much more volatile and perhaps untenable in the long term. Okinawa is home to a large and vocal opposition to the relocation plan and to the level of U.S. military forces stationed on the island. Forcing the people of Okinawa to accept this resolution, contrary to their wishes, will be a source of domestic discontent as well as of continuing tensions between the United States and Japan. The relocation plan is also now facing opposition from members of the U.S. Congress, who are attempting to rein in military spending in an effort to reduce the national deficit. Indeed, the future of the relocation plan from Futenma to Henoko, although officially settled, remains up in the air.

In the meantime, the status quo holds. The United States does not feel that Japan is adequately capable of filling the operational void that would be left were it to withdraw key forces from Okinawa. As a result, Washington has pressured Tokyo into accepting the 2006 realignment agreement as a transitional phase while the United States reduces its capabilities and Japan enhances its own. In Japan, meanwhile, the strongest voices in Japanese politics call for a continued U.S. military presence in order to ensure Japanese security, at least until Japan is able to more fully take on responsibility for its own security. Furthermore, Japanese concerns over the rise of China as well their unpredictable nuclear-armed neighbor, North Korea, have strengthened the domestic case for remaining close to the United States while pursuing indigenous defense capabilities within the context of the security alliance.

For the short term, the United States should make every attempt at limiting the local impact of Air Station Futenma. This could mean placing limits on the number and intensity of training exercises conducted out of Futenma as well as holding more open dialogue with members of the local community in order to answer their concerns.

For the long term the U.S. and Japan must re-examine the realignment agreement to discern whether Japan could take over some of the responsibilities of the III Marine Expeditionary Force. The United States would be able to remove some of the more controversial elements of its forces in Okinawa while maintaining its commitment to extended deterrence through other U.S. military installations in Japan, as well as throught the 7th Fleet, the 5th Air Force, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella. By restoring sovereignty to the Japanese, the United States can make a significant gesture of its good intentions. Restoring Japanese sovereignty will also allow the people of Okinawa better avenues to voice their concerns, which they currently lack, as well as engage in the democratic process.

Stronger Japan?

Many have advocated that the United States should continue to encourage the Japanese government to take a more active role in its own security in the context of a strong security alliance. A stronger Japan in this context would allow the United States to divert resources from the region and direct them to areas where they are more greatly needed. A stronger Japan would also be more able to engage with the international community and pursue a more equal relationship with the world’s great powers.

However, such a strategy faces several likely challenges. China and Korea would most likely see a strong Japan as threatening, possibly precipitating a regional arms race, escalating tensions, and creating a classic security dilemma. Additionally, strong societal taboos against the use of military force in Japan still remain. The continued resurgence of the Japanese military would almost assuredly require revision of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which remains very popular among the Japanese. Finally, the Japanese economy has suffered a period of stagnation over the last decade as well as a sharp blow from the 2008 global recession. Social programs for an aging population will place greater strain on the budget. It is therefore difficult to see where the money for expanding the military to the levels the United States desires will come from. This divergence – between U.S. expectations and the realities of Japanese capabilities, both in the present and the future – has come to the fore during the debate over Futenma and will continue to plague the alliance.

Since Hatoyama’s resignation, both Tokyo and Washington have attempted to patch up their differences in an effort to present a united front to the region and the world. In a move widely praised by the Obama administration, Prime Minister Kan reaffirmed the Japanese government’s commitment to the relocation plan. With that decision, the matter seemed closed. However, as is often the case, rhetoric does not mirror reality. There continues to be significant Okinawan opposition to the planned relocation, which has manifested itself in recent elections. The citizens of Nago City, which controls the district where the replacement facility is to be located, made their intentions clear by electing a majority (16 of 27 seats) of candidates who oppose the relocation plan to their city assembly.

The controversy will also likely play a large role in the November election for governor of Okinawa. The incumbent, Hirokazu Nakaima, faces former Ginowan City mayor, Yoichi Iha. Iha has come out in strong opposition to the relocation plan as well as to the continued operation of the Futenma base at all. Nakaima, bending to popular opposition to relocation, has at times harshly criticized Tokyo over its actions on the matter, but he has not declared categorical opposition to the base. With Naoto Kan retaining leadership of the DPJ and thereby the prime ministership, the stage has been set for a major domestic political show-down between Tokyo and the local Okinawan governments, and the crisis over Futenma will likely recur in the coming months.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Pacific, concerns over the national debt level have caused U.S. lawmakers to advocate slashing the defense department’s budget. Chief among those expenditures under the congressional microscope is the U.S. network of overseas bases. The efficacy of these bases, at one time a given, is now being questioned. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the United States has downgraded the importance of the security alliance with Japan in favor of other allies in East Asia. During the G-20 summit in Toronto last June, President Obama referred to South Korea as “the lynchpin” of U.S. East Asian strategy. This statement was followed more recently by Secretary Clinton’s listing South Korea before Japan when discussing vital regional allies. Shortly after her speech, the Yomiuri Shimbun ran the headline “Japan is Lower Than South Korea in the Ranking of U.S. Allies in Asia,” testifying to the level of Japanese angst over the alliance.

Unfortunately, we are left with a real difficulty in charting the way forward. There are certainly those who consider the Futenma controversy a small bump in the road on the way to the reaffirmation of the alliance, an alliance that will become more equal as Japan, with U.S. encouragement and guidance, accepts more responsibility and regains its status as a normal international power. However, there are others who are much more pessimistic about the future and see Futenma as a festering and recurring crisis that will precipitate the unraveling of the U.S.-Japanese relationship unless appropriately addressed. In either case, the way forward will be painful for both sides as it will require a realistic appraisal of interests, goals, and most importantly, capabilities in a new era of economic austerity and public skepticism.

Greg Chaffin is an intern with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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