Despite the U.S. announcement Monday that it will withdraw up to 70,000 service members from Asia and Europe over the next decade, America’s military presence in Japan might not be part of that scenario, according to government officials.
President George W. Bush outlined a massive forces realignment plan in a Cincinnati speech, but Tokyo remains tight-lipped about details of bilateral discussions on the U.S. force levels in Japan, maintaining that Washington has yet to make concrete proposals.
There have been reports that the U.S. might boost its presence in Japan.
As the U.S. aims for what Bush called a “more agile and more flexible” military, Japanese officials are aware that any changes in the U.S. forces situation here could affect the bilateral security alliance, which authorizes the U.S. presence to maintain security in Japan and the Far East.
Japanese officials are also aware of the strong opposition from some municipalities hosting U.S. military installations.
“One thing I can say for certain is that the discussions are not proceeding at a pace dictated by the U.S.,” a senior Defense Agency official said.
U.S. media reports said two-thirds of the announced reductions would be in Europe, mostly in Germany. Washington has already said it would pull out 12,500 of some 37,000 service members in South Korea.
Both Germany and South Korea have hosted large U.S. military contingents to counter Cold War threats.
In contrast, ideas floated by Washington so far suggest the U.S. military presence in Japan might be strengthened.
According to the headquarters of the U.S. Forces, Japan, there are currently 58,475 U.S. service members here — 1,905 army soldiers, 20,605 marines, 14,765 airmen and 21,200 sailors, including 13,890 belonging to the 7th Fleet, whose forward-deployed port is Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Members of the 7th Fleet are omitted from the official U.S. forces Japan roster because they are under the U.S. Pacific Command, one of the five U.S. regional commands, and not the U.S. Forces, Japan. However, the fleet also receives host-nation support from Japan.
At a high-level meeting in San Francisco last month, Richard Lawless, deputy defense undersecretary for Asian and Pacific affairs, reportedly presented several force realignment proposals to Japanese officials.
They include relocating the command functions of the U.S. Army I Corps, based in Washington state, to U.S. Army Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture; integrating the 13th Air Force Command on Guam and the 5th Air Force Command, based at the U.S. Yokota Air Base in Tokyo; and redeploying some marines in Okinawa to other parts of Japan.
I Corps, based at Fort Lewis, is a rapid-deployment force covering the Asia-Pacific region.
The 13th Air Force, headquartered at Andersen Air Base, commands operations in the Southwest Pacific and Indian oceans and is a key base for long-range bombers and tanker aircraft, which can also support operations in the Middle East.
If these movements come about, Japan would become a U.S. frontline Asia-Pacific command post, according to Hiromichi Umebayashi, president of Yokohama-based disarmament think tank Peace Depot and an expert on the U.S. military in Japan.
“The message is more political than quantitative,” he said. “By concentrating command functions in Japan, the level of cooperation between the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military would increase.
“The U.S. may be counting on Japan, which is now a key ally in (Bush’s) ‘coalition of the willing,’ ” he said.
But Umebayashi warned that such moves, which would give U.S. forces in Japan command over operations in areas as far away as the Middle East, would inevitably violate the 1960 Japan-U.S. security treaty.
Some actions, however, may have already moved the two countries away from the bilateral pact. Researchers claim that U.S. forces in Japan in the past have engaged in activities that went beyond the scope of defending Japan and maintaining stability in the Far East.
At the start of the war in Iraq, for example, the 7th Fleet battle group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, was in the Persian Gulf and attacked Iraq with Tomahawk cruise missiles, according to the U.S. Naval Forces Japan.
Fighter jets from Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture and Kadena Air Base in Okinawa also reportedly participated in the Iraq war.
Some 3,000 U.S. Marines based in Okinawa were sent to Iraq in January as reinforcements.
In addition, the U.S. military in Japan reportedly played pivotal roles in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
A 1995 U.S. Defense Department report on East Asia said: “There is no more important bilateral relationship than the one we have with Japan. It is fundamental to both our Pacific security policy and our global strategic objectives.”
Since becoming secretary of defense in January 2001, Donald Rumsfeld has strongly advocated the need to transform the U.S. forces to meet the threats of the 21st century.
But it was the terrorism on Sept. 11 of that year which solidified the U.S. position.
“The world has changed a great deal, and our posture must change with it,” Bush said Monday.
Some of the principles guiding the U.S. military review include strengthening partnerships with allies and friends, improving force flexibility, focusing on more rapidly deployable capabilities and breaking down artificial regional boundaries.
The Pentagon’s goal of flexibility without regional boundaries, however, is said to be difficult for Japan under the limitations of the current bilateral security pact.
Washington has often called Japan the most generous of any U.S. ally.
Japan pays nearly half of all the costs of the U.S. military here, including salaries for Japanese staff at U.S. bases and utilities. In the fiscal 2004 budget, 244 billion yen was allocated to host-nation support of the U.S. forces.
Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba has pledged to keep in mind “the maintenance of deterrence and the reduction of local burdens” in Tokyo’s forces realignment negotiations with the U.S.
Yet local government leaders question whether the central government is really serious about reducing their burden.
Mayors of cities that are potential new hosts for U.S. military facilities have voiced opposition to the relocation plans. Some have rushed to the Defense Agency and the Foreign Ministry to express their opposition and complain that the central government is not giving them enough information.
“It’s wrong for Japan to passively accept what the U.S. decides on its force review and to force local governments to obey,” Kanagawa Gov. Shigefumi Matsuzawa said after a meeting with Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi last month. “We have never been consulted on this matter by the Foreign Ministry.”