Only a few months ago, the Japan-U.S. military alliance — considered by both nations as the “cornerstone” of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region — was in crisis.
But owing to a wakeup call in the East China Sea — military tensions with Beijing — Japan is taking a fresh look at the role of the U.S. military in the country.
The tension with China has led people in Japan to acknowledge the strategic importance of having U.S. forces based here, not only for the defense of Japanese territory but also to maintain stability throughout East Asia.
In the past month, Tokyo and Beijing waged a war of words over the Senkaku Islands after Japan arrested a trawler captain near the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. The islets are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan. Japan Coast Guard boats were trying to board the trawler, and it collided with them.
Tokyo even saw what an economic war would look like, as Beijing apparently halted exports of rare earth minerals critical to Japan’s high-tech industry.
China’s fury over the sea incident eventually prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to confirm that the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Senkakus. The treaty obliges the U.S. to defend Japan against an “armed attack” by another country.
Before the Senkaku crisis, Japan was having a hard time trying to sell the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa amid strong local opposition.
“The crack between Japan and the U.S. had a major impact” on China’s decision-making, prompting it to take an aggressive attitude toward Japan, said Yoshimitsu Nishikawa, a professor of international relations at Toyo University.
“China was testing the U.S. and the Japanese government to see how far it can go.”
Indeed, before the crisis, many people at home and abroad were questioning the strength of the Tokyo-Washington military alliance.
The relationship was suffering for the past year from the contentious Futenma airfield relocation in Okinawa, where antibase sentiment is strong, a fact not lost on politicians looking to score votes.
But contrary to Beijing’s hopes, many in Japan’s leadership ranks have felt compelled to reaffirm the strength of the U.S. alliance, particularly amid perceptions of China’s growing military strength, and potential reach.
Many leaders around Asia would agree. During a May 15 interview with the Asahi Shimbun, senior Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew emphasized the strategic importance of U.S. forces in Japan — in particular those in Okinawa — as a counterweight against China’s growing military power.
“If you remove all bases of America, I think your position and that of Asia, that position will be weaker strategically,” Lee said.
“And the Japanese people, never mind the government of the day, will have to decide where is their longer-term interest and which is more important — your security or your convenience of the Okinawa people?”
Since its defeat in World War II, Japan has renounced war. The Constitution, drafted under the Allied Occupation, stipulates the nation will not field a standing military. The Self-Defense Forces are relegated to the role their name implies, while the U.S. maintains numerous bases here to help defend Japan and maintain “peace and security in the Far East.”
But the scope of the Japan-U.S. military treaty has been extended far beyond “the Far East,” roughly defined as areas north of the Philippines. The U.S. bases here support global engagements, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean.
A strong Japan-U.S. security alliance also benefits other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, which have their own territorial disputes with China, in the South China Sea, and the U.S. presence in South Korea helps keep its threatening northern neighbor at bay.
“Japan’s defense capability has its limits because (the Constitution requires) an exclusively defense-oriented policy and the country won’t use the right of collective self-defense,” former Vice Defense Minister Takemasa Moriya said in an interview with The Japan Times. “America is the only nation capable of being the stabilizing force in the region.”
U.S. Forces Japan, headquartered at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, includes army, navy, air force and marine elements.
According to USFJ, as of August there were 2,800 army, 5,800 navy, 12,500 air force and 16,500 marine personnel in Japan. The total number of service members and their dependents came to 85,000.
However, sailors of the U.S. 7th fleet, whose forward-deployed port is Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, are not included in the USFJ’s official numbers because many are at sea at any given time.
The 7th Fleet flagship, the USS Blue Ridge, is also based in Yokosuka. The fleet’s area of responsibility ranges from the Kuril Islands in the north to the Antarctic, and from the international date line to the 68th meridian east at the India-Pakistan border.
The area includes 35 maritime countries and the world’s five largest armed forces outside the U.S. — China, Russia, India, and North and South Korea.
Five of the seven U.S. Mutual Defense Treaties are with countries in the area — the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Thailand, according to the 7th Fleet’s official website.
The U.S. currently deploys 11 ships and units to Yokosuka, including the USS George Washington, the world’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier.
Of the three U.S. Marine Corps expeditionary forces, the first is headquartered in California, the second in North Carolina and the third in Okinawa.
The III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa is tasked with covering the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East.
Satoshi Morimoto, director of the Institute of World Studies at Takushoku University in Tokyo, considers the marines’ presence necessary to the defense of Japan.
“The marine corps’ adaptability, flexibility for counterattack and strike capability work as a deterrent,” Morimoto said. “They can’t be in the U.S. They need to be near (Japan) with a strong ability to strike and with the mobility to be able to fly over a short distance immediately.”
Residents of Okinawa, however, have criticized the extended global reach of the U.S. military in the prefecture, which they say goes far beyond the defense of Japan or the Far East, pointing out many marines have been dispatched from the prefecture to Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. bases in Okinawa occupy about 18 percent of the prefecture’s main island, where memories still stretch back to the horrifying World War II ground battle. Residents are also angry over noise and environmental damage as well as crimes committed by U.S. service members and dependents.
The anger reached a boiling point in May, after the many flip-flops by then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over whether the Futenma base would be relocated within Okinawa or, as he promised while campaigning, outside the prefecture. He ultimately reneged and resigned, but the row shook the foundation of the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
Morimoto, however, stressed that any alternative site for Futenma should meet three key conditions: it must be able to accommodate helicopters, provide space for strenuous ground training and have a shore accessible to U.S. landing craft.
“You can’t separate these functions,” Morimoto said. “If there is another location that can accommodate these conditions, (the marines) don’t need to be in Okinawa. But unfortunately, there is no other location politically.”
Still, Okinawans feel they are discriminated against by the central government, given the apparent lack of effort to try to persuade mainland localities to host Futenma’s replacement.
However, Manabu Sato, a professor at Okinawa International University, argues that the marines were installed in Okinawa because of political reasons, not military necessity.
“Until 1956, the marine corps (in Japan) was based in Gifu and Yamanashi prefectures,” Sato pointed out.
The U.S. military decided to move the marine bases to Okinawa in the 1950s after strong protests by the Japanese public against the U.S. military presence. At the time, Okinawa was still under U.S. rule and was only returned to Japan in 1972.
“The marines were not relocated to Okinawa for military reasons,” Sato said. “They were brought to Okinawa on political grounds.”
Many marines in Okinawa are young and experience a tremendous amount of stress during their harsh jungle training, so trouble is inevitable when they go out on the town, Sato said.
“This is completely not an ideal social structure,” he said. “The fact that there are foreign service members still roaming all around town is not normal.”
Sato’s university is located next to the Futenma base in Ginowan, and helicopters fly over the campus. One even crashed on the campus in 2004.
“The biggest burden for Okinawa is the marine corps,” Sato said.
“I don’t see why Japan can’t negotiate with the U.S. from the standpoint of military strategy that they are not necessary.”
An expert on the base issue, Sato is deeply disappointed that the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling coalition failed to come up with a replacement site other than Henoko, farther north on Okinawa Island, and basically went back to the original 2006 Japan-U.S. accord.
“The U.S. is going to find it difficult to continue being the world’s police force,” Sato said.
“It is going to have to start prioritizing, withdrawing from areas with fewer conflicts . . . and in the long run, the U.S. military presence may not be necessary — but that all depends on what diplomatic course Japan will follow,” he said.