Refocusing the U.S.-Japan Alliance: It’s Not Just About an Air Base

Mike Mochizuki and
Mike Mochizuki Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs - The George Washington University
Michael E. O’Hanlon

December 18, 2009

For nearly 15 years, the two largest economies on Earth and two of the world’s top military powers have spent much of their alliance management time discussing the fate of one airfield, the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station on the island of Okinawa.

This is a poor preoccupation for the allies given the other, huge issues that confront the two countries – dealing with nuclear North Korea, the rise of China, the global problem of Islamic extremism, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other matters such as recovery from the global recession and mitigation of the global warming threat. It is time to move beyond it.

Japan’s new leader, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, has just reopened the issue when it appeared settled. That is his prerogative, and there are military alternatives for the United States – but any such decision should not be made lightly and would oblige Japan to find new and bold ways to contribute more to the alliance as well as global security.

In 2006, Tokyo and Washington finally agreed to move Futenma to a less populated, northern area of the main Okinawan Island. The current facility’s location in the heart of Ginowan City brings with it problems of noise, risk of accidents and interference with local economic development strategies.

But Mr. Hatoyama is not sure he wants to bless a deal put together by the Liberal Democratic Party that his upstart Democratic Party finally managed to defeat in an election this past summer. At a substantive level, members of his governing coalition feel the small island is asked to do too much for the alliance, hosting more than half of all U.S. military personnel in Japan.

Mr. Hatoyama’s reluctance pits him against not only the LDP, but the Japanese bureaucrats who want to implement the relocation plan and the United States – which has said its entire willingness to relocate half of its Marines from Okinawa to Guam is contingent on Mr. Hatoyama accepting what other parties saw as a done deal.

Supporters of the proposal to relocate the base on the island note that it is militarily important to retain such a facility. They also note that the existing plan attempts to balance the interests of the United States, Japan in general, and Okinawans in particular, and that it was negotiated painstakingly over roughly a decade.

For our part, we have long argued that the Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa is militarily more significant than Futenma, given Kadena’s likely role in possible conflicts in Korea, the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere, as well as its role as a hub in the American global military base network.

Preserving local political support for Kadena is, therefore, much more important than holding onto Futenma or building a successor. So, if further accommodating Okinawan interests on the Futenma issue is necessary, it is a modest price to pay for shoring up the broader political health of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa in general and at Kadena in particular.

Just as we make pragmatic decisions in other parts of the world, including the broader Middle East and Korea, about when to relocate our forces for the greater good of an alliance, we can factor local sensitivities into this issue.

Provided the United States could improve its contingency access to other airfields on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan for use in a possible crisis or war, our view is that the United States could make do without Futenma or a substitute. Losing the airfield altogether (with modest numbers of flights for the residual Marine presence occurring from alternative facilities in Okinawa and other prefectures, perhaps) is not a preferred option but a tolerable one.

However, it makes no sense to keep more than 15,000 Marines on Okinawa without a dedicated airfield. So if we were to lose the Futenma airfield and forgo any possible replacement, Japan should do even more than it now intends by way of financing the restructuring of the Marine presence.

At present Tokyo is slated to help move half the Okinawa Marines to Guam by 2014. If we could not have a major peacetime Marine airfield on Okinawa, however, most Marines should leave the island altogether for Guam or Hawaii or California – which would entail even higher costs. And Tokyo should certainly pay for the bulk of such costs. Japan only spends 1 percent of its gross domestic product on its military; the United States spends 4 percent to 5 percent and bears a far higher burden in combat operations.

Using commercial or Japanese military airfields in a crisis or war is allowed under the 1996 and 1997 agreements between Tokyo and Washington governing base use in Japan; prestationing of some supplies and engineering equipment on these other airfields, while also purchasing extra Marine Corps ground combat equipment and placing it aboard maritime prepositioning ships based in one of Japan’s harbors, could go a long way toward mitigating the downside of any loss of a permanent air station and even loss of the Marine Corps presence altogether.

Because of these military alternatives, Mr. Hatoyama is right not to feel streamrolled by the arguments of defense professionals and establishment figures that Futenma or its successor is militarily crucial to the future of the alliance. But his concerns about the burden that Okinawans have borne for hosting U.S. military forces and bases need to be placed in a larger perspective. Although many Western nations led by the United States are asking their soldiers to risk their lives on global military security operations, including the war in Afghanistan from which the Sept. 11, 2001, attackers against America originated, Japan is not doing so.

Mr. Hatoyama is right to insist on a more equal partnership with the United States and a greater voice in the alliance, but this requires that Japan contribute much more to global security.

So it comes down to this: Mr. Hatoyama, as the leader of a sovereign state, has every right to rethink his country’s previous commitments, just as he already has in replacing Japan’s Indian Ocean resupply operations for U.S. Navy ships there with a larger aid package for Afghanistan. But that latter policy suggests the way forward here, too: If Mr. Hatoyama is to walk away from a deal others in Japan and the United States have worked hard to create, he must do something real, and big and historic in timely fashion instead.

Beyond funding any American military redeployment, Japan might send substantial numbers of peacekeeping troops to Sudan and Congo. These troops are allowed to use force to protect not only themselves but civilians. Some Japanese would argue such deployments would require constitutional changes, others would not. This would be an issue for Japanese to resolve in the coming months as they see fit.

Moving toward a true alliance in this way could do much not only to ease the pain over an Okinawa base disagreement, but to transcend it and reinvigorate what former Ambassador Mike Mansfield called the world’s most important bilateral relationship two decades ago.

If Mansfield’s words are to remain true today, we need to lift our sights above bickering over bases and put strategy and the world’s real problems back at the center of our alliance.