Okinawa and Security in East Asia

On March 10, Brookings Senior Fellow and CNAPS Director Richard Bush gave a presentation at the Japan Commerce Association in Washington, in which he discussed the impact of Japan’s recent political changes on the U.S.-Japan alliance and base realignment in Okinawa, and how the alliance and Okinawa are important to security in East Asia as a whole, not just Japan and the U.S. 

The evolution in Japanese politics over the last seven month should not be a great surprise. It was inevitable that sooner or later political changes along these lines would occur: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would eventually lose public support and an opposition party would win control of the Upper House of Japan’s bicameral legislature. The rising opposition party would likely offer proposals based on public alienation, or at least their perception of it. The regime change would result in a team of inexperienced political leaders taking power and their view of national interests would be shaped by their previous exclusion from decision making.

For the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the opposition party that finally toppled the LDP, one perceived source of public alienation was the presence of U.S. military bases in Japan, and the new leaders predictably have raised significant questions about the U.S.-Japan alliance. Specifically, the DPJ, leading Japan’s government since September 2009 has been calling for a more equal alliance. However, what Japan’s leaders mean by an equal alliance is still unknown.

The United States has experience with these situations though. The U.S. has witnessed and weathered significant changes in the governments, ruling parties, and leaders of foreign democratic countries. In East Asia alone, regime change has occurred in the Philippines in the late 1980s, in Taiwan in 2000, and in South Korea in 2002. We also have these situations in our own system as ruling parties change with election cycles. I have witnessed these changes throughout my career. And countries around the world have learned to expect that a transfer of power in the United States may lead to innovations in our foreign policy that are not necessarily in their interests. President Clinton’s effort to link China’s human rights behavior to its most-favored-nation status comes to mind.

During these transition periods abroad, the U.S. government tries to broaden the views of the new government and shape its policy direction in ways that fit U.S. interests. Washington seeks to avoid over-reaction and impatience as the foreign governments establish themselves. We have had mixed success in re-directing policy after a change of government. In the Philippines in the late 1980s, we started well with Corazon Aquino but in the end lost our bases. Regarding Taiwan, we were ready for the victory of Chen Shui-bian but could not block him from taking actions that China regarded as a challenge to its fundamental interest. In South Korea there were some initial problems with President Roh Moo-hyun, but our relations soon stabilized.

In some respects, the direction of the DPJ government is not that new. The effort to improve relations with China, for example, began in 2006, under the LDP government. Former Prime Minister Fukuda especially put a lot of energy into this effort. The U.S. is not opposed to this improvement in relations, but there are questions of whether it will go too far. With respect to North Korea, Japan pursued its own interests from time to time. Notably, former Prime Minister Koizumi made a somewhat successful overture to Pyongyang but then the abduction issue became an obstacle. Now, there are questions of how Japan will balance a desire for better relations with Pyongyang with its other interests. With respect to U.S. troops and bases in Japan, the LDP was not energetic in implementing base realignment and reaching an agreement between Tokyo and Washington was a slow process. Implementation of the agreement was even slower, especially with regard to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The DPJ now seems to be following in this pattern of slow, lethargic decision-making, which raises the question of whether there will actually be a serious reversal in policy, or simply a continuation of past tendencies.

I have no idea whether the DPJ government will move toward a policy on Futenma that will not damage the alliance. I certainly hope so, even though there will be some political cost. For although the public supports the alliance, they increasingly disapprove of the cabinet. The DPJ’s need to preserve its coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has aggravated the problem, but that is not a permanent obstacle. The alternative to going forward is the status quo, which is not good for anyone. The constant search for new solutions doesn’t inspire confidence and both accentuates and creates divisions within the leadership.

I do believe that decisions concerning the American presence in Japan should be based on a different logic. It should start with a threat assessment: where does the danger come from at present and where will it come from in the future? The next step is to develop a strategy to effectively apply available resources to the threat. That in turn should shape a determination of the necessary force structure and how much to rely on the United States, and the optimal balance between the two. If the reliance on the United States is to continue, then what form that reliance will take needs to be carefully considered. Will it continue to include the presence of foreign forces or will it take some other form? The DPJ’s campaign promises started with the latter questions of the foreign force presence, without addressing the earlier questions regarding regional threats and a security strategy.

The threat environment in Northeast Asia is not benign. North Korea’s WMD capabilities are a matter of concern but will hopefully be a medium-term problem. More attention, however, is focused on China which has gradually developed a full spectrum of capabilities, including nuclear weapons. Their current emphasis is on power projection and their immediate goal is to create a strategic buffer in at least the first island chain. Although Taiwan is the driver for these efforts, they affect Japan. Of course, capabilities are not intentions. However, how will Japan feel as the conventional U.S.-China balance deteriorates and a new equilibrium is reached, especially knowing that China has nuclear weapons? There are also specific points of friction within Northeast Asia such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the East China Sea, North Korea, and Taiwan, some of which involve and concern more than one government. Although we can hope that China will not seek to dominate East Asia at the U.S. and Japan’s expense, we can’t be sure of their intentions either. Hope is not a policy.

The most sensible strategy—for both the U.S. and Japan—is to try to shape China’s intentions over time so that they move in a benign direction; so that it has more to gain from cooperation than a challenge. This has been the U.S. and Japan’s strategy since the early 1970s. The strategy has a good foundation in economic interdependence. However, it is easier said than done and is one of the biggest challenges of this century. The strategy requires at least two elements: engaging and incorporating China as much as possible, and maintaining the strength and willingness to define limits. This combination of elements is important because engagement without strength would lead China to exploit our good will while strength without engagement would lead China to suspect that our intentions are not benign.

If engagement-plus-strength is the proper strategy for the U.S. and Japan each to cope with a rising China, it only makes sense that Japan and the United States will be more effective if they work together, complementing each other’s respective abilities. The strength side of this equation almost requires Japan to rely on the alliance since history suggests that it will not build up sufficiently on its own. An important part of strength is positioning your power in the right places. That is why forward deployment of U.S. forces in Japan has always been important. That is why our presence on Okinawa is important.

Lieutenant General Keith Stalder, commanding general of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, recently spoke in Japan about the importance of Okinawa for the mission of the Marines. Among other things, he said that the U.S. Marine Corps is the emergency response force in East Asia. He explained that “The fundamental Marine Corps organizational structure is the Marine Air Ground Task Force, in which war fighting elements of aviation forces, ground combat forces, and logistics forces all operate under a single commander.” The Marine ground forces must train consistently with the helicopters that support them. Lieutenant General Stalder illustrated his point by saying that the “Marine Air Ground Task Force is a lot like a baseball team. It does not do you any good to have the outfielders practicing in one town, the catcher in another, and the third baseman somewhere else. They need to practice together, as a unit.” He went on to say that Okinawa is very important because it is relatively close to mainland Japan, to Korea, to the South China Sea, and to the Strait of Malacca. This geographic location is why, he said, “There is probably nowhere better in the world from which to dispatch Marines to natural disasters” than Okinawa. This importance of Okinawa is another reason why finding a solution to the realignment issue is essential. Any solution to the Okinawa problem should meet four conditions: efficiency of operations, safety, local interests, and permanence. Resolving the situation is also important because, as Lieutenant General Stalder pointed out, other nations are “watching to see whether the United States-Japan Alliance is strong enough to find a solution to the current issues.”[1]

Of course, our two countries and China are not the only ones concerned with the alliance. South Korea has important stakes involved in the presence of U.S. forces in the Western Pacific. In the event of a conventional attack by North Korea, South Korea has a very strong military, but it also depends on the ability of the United States to move forces quickly to the Korean peninsula. It depends on those U.S. forces, including Marines, to dissuade and deter North Korea from even considering an attack. South Korea is comfortable with the relocation of 8,000 marines to Guam, in part because there are already other U.S. troops on the peninsula and in Japan, and also because moving Marines from Guam by air doesn’t take long. However, South Korea would likely be concerned by signs that the U.S.-Japan alliance was slowly dissolving. If U.S. troops were to be removed from, first, Okinawa and, then, the home islands, it would likely weaken deterrence.

Taiwan also has concerns. The Marines on Okinawa, plus the U.S. air force, serve to strengthen deterrence in the event of aggression by China against Taiwan. China will be less likely to mount an attack because the U.S. has both ground troops and an air base on Okinawa. If China attacked U.S. installations on Okinawa, that almost ensures a serious conflict. The bases act as a tripwire.

So there are strong reasons to resolve these issues in a mutually acceptable way (although that way may not be acceptable to the people of Okinawa). And I am cautiously optimistic that they will be resolved. First of all, some senior officials are coming to the right conclusion on Futenma. That is, they are capable of gaining a deeper understanding of Japan’s national interests and where the Okinawa realignment agreement fits.

Second, the political factors surrounding this issue are shifting in a positive direction. LDP defections have given the DPJ and the People’s New Party an absolute majority in the Upper House, thus marginalizing the SDP and its absolutist demands. As previously mentioned, the public supports the alliance, but it has increasing doubts about DPJ leadership, in part because of Futenma. So, where the political logic of 2009 led the DPJ coalition to demand a lot on Okinawa, the political logic of 2010 appears to encourage Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama to settle for what they can get.

Finally, the United States has played its cards right. Having experienced this kind of situation before, we have been patient and we have not overreacted. Although I can still imagine circumstances where the end result is bad for the alliance (as in the Philippines), there is good reason to believe that that will not happen.

[1] “Marine General Stalder Speaks at Tokyo American Center,” speech by Lieutenant General Keith J. Stalder, Embassy of the United States in Japan, February 17, 2010 (