In a referendum March 12, a majority of residents in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, voted no on a government plan to host additional 57 carrier-based warplanes at the U.S. Marine Corps air station there. Under a plan for the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, the planes are to be transferred from the U.S. naval air station at Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture. Tokyo and Washington had agreed to the plan last October, and the “no” vote shocked the Japanese government.

Separately, the proposed removal of the Marine Corps air station at Futenma, Okinawa — the focal issue in the realignment plan — has run into fierce opposition from local residents. Should the “no” vote in Iwakuni cause a domino effect of resistance to the U.S. military presence, it will become impossible for the government to finalize the realignment plan by the end of this month in the way that it hopes.

If the plan is implemented without agreement with local authorities, the Japan-U.S. defense alliance will face serious trouble. The government bears heavy responsibility for the quandary: It failed to explain to the public the need for sharing the burden of hosting the U.S. military.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration has been working to re-establish U.S. military strategies that reflect the changing international security environment. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced a plan to promote talks with U.S. allies on the realignment of U.S. forces. While visiting Kyoto last November, Bush said in a speech that the Japan-U.S. alliance was “the pillar of stability and security” in Asia.

In February 2005, the Cabinet-level Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (SCC), made up of top diplomatic and defense officials, agreed on “common strategic objectives.” Among regional objectives, the committee mentioned peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula, peaceful settlement of the North Korean nuclear-arms issue, and increased transparency of Chinese military activities. Although it encouraged China to play a constructive role regionally and globally, China rebuked the committee for citing the “peaceful solution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait” as one objective.

Globally, the committee agreed to cooperate in promoting the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and preventing terrorism.

The next session of the SCC, held last October, published a joint statement titled “Japan-U.S. Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future.” It clarified the respective roles, missions and capabilities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and U.S. forces in contributing to the maintenance of military deterrents. Specifically, the report called for increased interoperability between the SDF and U.S. forces, joint use of bases, and cooperation in missile defense among the efforts to coordinate Japan-U.S. military operations.

For the third stage, Japanese and U.S. authorities started reviewing the realignment of the SDF and U.S. forces from the viewpoint of strengthening deterrents, while reducing the burden of hosting the U.S. military in Okinawa and other areas.

Present plans call for:

* Transferring Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force command headquarters to the U.S. air base at Yokota, where the U.S. 5th Air Force is based, and establishing a joint-operations coordination center there to improve air and missile defense.

* Moving the U.S. Army 1st Corps headquarters from Washington state to Camp Zama, where the U.S. Army in Japan is based, and creating the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Central Readiness Force Command there.

* Shifting the U.S. 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters from Okinawa to Guam. This involves about 8,000 U.S. military personnel, mostly for logistic support. In Okinawa, which accounts for 75 percent of the total area occupied by U.S. military bases in Japan, the realignment plan affects mostly marines. Combat units will remain, however. Futenma Marine Corps air station, which sits close to a residential area, will be moved to an area off the coast of Henoko.

Under the realignment plan, Japanese authorities have been hoping to reduce the local burden of hosting the U.S. military, but that wish runs contrary to the U.S. plan to strengthen deterrents. It is up to the Japanese government to iron out this problem.

The U.S. 2006 quadrennial defense review (QDR), published last month, set four policy objectives for new defense strategies. The first such report compiled after the 9/11 attacks called for defeating terrorist networks, defending the homeland in depth, shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads, and preventing hostile states and nonstate actors from acquiring or using WMDs.

The report expressed strong concern about China as a nation “at a strategic crossroads,” stating that, among the major and emerging powers, it had “the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” China’s 2006 defense budget increased 15 percent from the previous year, posting the 18th consecutive year-on-year rise, even as its motives for military expansion are unclear.

On the other hand, the report said India, another nation at a strategic crossroads, was a “key strategic partner.”

In the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. strategies are aimed at preventing terrorism and strengthening deterrents against China and North Korea. The QDR noted the importance of military cooperation with U.S. allies Japan, Australia and South Korea. The new U.S. strategies will require basic changes in Tokyo’s security cooperation with Washington.

Japan and the U.S. is conducting joint technical research on missile defense. They recently succeeded in firing an interceptor SAM3 missile, a new generation of missiles being developed for launch from the Aegis-class destroyer. The Japanese government announced in December 2005 a plan for joint development of the missile, beginning in fiscal 2006.

To strengthen its deterrents, the U.S. is moving to expand its military presence in the Pacific. Present plans call for deploying six of its 11 carrier strike groups and 60 percent of its submarines in the Pacific.

Realignment of the U.S. forces in Japan is part of the strategies established in the QDR. Japan has yet to conduct intensive debate from a broad perspective on its security strategies, including the SDF’s roles.

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