To the Marines: Don’t Go to Nago

Not to be confused with Nagano, the small town of Nago on the Japanese island of Okinawa is in the news as well.

U.S. and Japanese officials would like to move the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station, presently located in a city on the southern part of the island, to an offshore facility near Nago. But the Okinawan people, and residents of Nago, are deeply ambivalent about the idea.

In December, Nago residents voted against the new base in a local referendum. On February 6, Okinawan Governor Ota, who came to office early this decade on a platform to reduce U.S. bases on the island, cited the referendum as well as a 1996 prefectural assembly resolution to declare his opposition to the new facility. Two days later, however, Nago residents narrowly defeated a candidate for mayor who staked his claim to office exclusively on his opposition to the base.

What to make of this complicated political situation? It suggests that most Okinawans are of a mixed mind: less extreme than Governor Ota, who has declared that he would like all U.S. bases off Okinawa by 2015, but also unhappy with the modest changes to the status quo now being offered them. The right compromise proposal just might win them over.

The issue of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa is a highly sensitive one. The tragic rape of a 12-year old schoolgirl by American servicemen in 1995 brought problems to a head, but trouble had been brewing for years. About 20,000 Marines and 7,000 Air Force troops—more than half the total U.S. troop strength in Japan—are based on Okinawa. U.S. bases continue to cover almost one-fifth of the densely-populated island. Okinawans feel they are exploited, and opinion polls consistently show that most other Japanese agree with them. Against this backdrop, were another heinous crime to be committed by American troops, the fallout could be enormous.

Why are U.S. force levels on Okinawa so high? First, American officials correctly value Okinawa as an excellent staging area for air transport, equipment storage, fighter jet operations, and any amphibious assault operation that might be necessary in the East Asia region (notably against North Korea). These are good arguments for keeping the Kadena Air Force Base and predeployed military equipment on Okinawa, but not for stationing large numbers of Marines there.

Second, officials worry that any reduction in U.S. troop strength in Japan would signal a weakening of our commitment to the region’s security. That reasoning is flawed. In addition to the Marines on Okinawa, the United States stations 25,000 other personnel in Japan and 37,000 troops in South Korea. Thousands more regularly sail through the western Pacific. The U.S. base network in Japan, Korea, and Guam would also allow for rapid reinforcements in a crisis.

Moreover, the Marines do not need to come home. The United States could base 5,000 on Okinawa, at least 10,000 in Australia, and perhaps a few thousand more in southern South Korea. By taking Australia up on its interest in hosting U.S. Marines, the United States would gain a useful hub for operations in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf as well as virtually unlimited amounts of space for training.

The Marine Corps itself expects future combat to be more like the stepchild of Chechnya than a replay of Desert Storm or the Korean war, and is busy preparing for urban operations throughout the world’s littoral areas. Such conflicts could just as easily be on the Indian subcontinent or Indonesia as in northeast Asia.

This approach could help solidify U.S.-Japan security relations in another way that will be particularly important if the Korean confrontation ends. Many Japanese would resist hosting American troops that appeared to be directed primarily at China. If, however, U.S. forces in Japan were seen as part of a broader network focused not just on deterring China but also on missions like counterterrorism, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief throughout the region, the alliance should remain on strong ground in Japanese politics.

Further, Marines based in southern Korea could also be just the kind of U.S. military presence that Koreans would welcome after an end to their civil war, since it might be less apt to antagonize China than large numbers of U.S. ground forces based further north on the peninsula.

After a cooling off period, American and Japanese officials should close the Futenma Air Station and return Marine Corps barracks and training ranges on Okinawa to local control. Only the 2,000-strong 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, as well as Marines manning expanded equipment storage and staging facilities, would remain on Okinawa. The 31st MEU could borrow runway space from the Air Force’s Kadena facility from time to time, and Okinawa’s international airport should a major operation be needed. Japan might be willing to pay for the lion’s share of the costs associated with relocating the Marines. The United States might incur some added expenses, but they would amount to well under one-tenth of one percent of the U.S. defense budget. That is a tiny price to pay for a stronger alliance.