The clock is ticking for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as he works to decide where to relocate the controversial U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, but there has been little discussion regarding whether it is reasonable to assert that the presence of the marines in Okinawa is indispensable.
Military experts in Japan say the number of marines actually stationed in Okinawa has been much smaller in recent years than the formal tally, prompting some to doubt whether keeping many marines there would act as a deterrent.
In February, a top marine commander came to Tokyo and made a pitch for the importance of the marines’ presence in terms of the fundamental nature of the 1960 bilateral security treaty.
During a U.S. Embassy-organized gathering, Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commander of the Marine Corps’ Pacific force, said the current deployment of marines in Okinawa is “the perfect model” to support the bilateral alliance’s objectives of “deterring, defending and defeating potential adversaries.”
“Our service members are prepared to risk their lives in defense of Japan. . . . Japan does not have a reciprocal obligation to defend the United States” under the treaty, Stalder said.
“In return for U.S. defense guarantees, Japan provides bases, opportunities to train and, in more recent times, financial support,” he said.
Stalder said the United States “accepts this asymmetry” but hinted Washington wants Tokyo to always keep this in mind.
But military analyst Shoji Fukuyoshi has his doubts, saying the deployment of marines in Okinawa has been “hollowed out.”
The United States says the full strength of the marines in Okinawa is around 18,000, while the prefectural government says the number is actually about 12,000.
Many ground units do not remain in Okinawa on a regular basis but rotate to the prefecture, local government officials said, adding some of the units have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fukuyoshi said the U.S. side claims it has four infantry battalions in Okinawa, but three of them, with a total of around 2,000 members, have been away from the island since 2003.
Under the current bilateral agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, around 8,000 marines in Okinawa will be transferred to Guam and the remaining 10,000 will theoretically remain in the prefecture.
The U.S. Marine Corps has three expeditionary forces and Okinawa is the only location outside of the U.S. mainland that hosts one of them, the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, which manages facilities including the Futenma air station — the base at the center of the controversy between Japan and the United States. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. service personnel stationed in Okinawa are marines.
But there is a view that only the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has about 2,200 members, could deal with an emergency by boarding four amphibious assault ships in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.
Security experts say marine units should stay in Okinawa for purposes such as providing ground force presence, rescuing civilians in an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, antiterrorism operations in Asia and disaster relief activities.
But Masaaki Gabe, an expert on international politics, said, “The U.S. Navy and Air Force in Japan could be seen as a deterrent. But I don’t see meaning in keeping the marines.”