Although the original version of this article was written for a Japanese daily, I initially had American readers in my mind as the main target of my argument.

In his first telephone conversation with the newly appointed Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly urged Noda to vigorously push the plan of realignment of U.S. forces in Japan including relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa. U.S. Ambassador John Roos reportedly made a similar request to Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba when they met on Sept. 12.

Given the recent background of Japan-U.S. bilateral talks, it was only natural for the U. S. government to make such requests. Nevertheless, I propose that the United States no longer press Japan to implement this realignment program.

This issue dates back to the 2003 meeting between the then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine. Rumsfeld listened glumly when Inamine explained how burdensome the U.S. military bases were to the people of Okinawa. Yet, immediately following the talk, Rumsfeld ordered a study to look into the possibility of reducing the U.S forces personnel and their dependents in Okinawa.

As can be conjectured from his judgment of the situation that led to the decision to start the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was criticized by many people including military officers, Rumsfeld is an intrepid decision maker who hardly listens to others opinions. Obviously he was displeased to be told that the presence of the U.S. military was a burden on the local people while he believed that its presence was necessary for defending the security of the people of Japan.

He must have decided immediately that if the U.S. military presence was indeed perceived that way, then the U.S. might as well reduce it.

It should be recalled that the timing of this decision coincided with the period when Rumsfeld had strong self-confidence in his own judgment and leadership following the successful operations in the initial stage of the invasion of Iraq.

Although a massive reorganization of U.S. forces took place in Europe following the vanishing of the Soviet threat due to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military presence in East Asia remained essentially unchanged.

This was, in a way, a historical inevitability. The strategic importance of Okinawa as a base against the threat from Vladivostok, as envisioned by American Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he was Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, had certainly diminished. But for a long time, the main purpose of the U.S. bases in Okinawa has been to cope with military contingencies on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait.

This should be obvious from the 1969 U.S.-Japan joint statement for the reversion of Okinawa, which specifically referred to the Korean Peninsula as essential and Taiwan as important for Japan’s security. It implied that the U.S. would use the Okinawan bases during such contingencies for defending the security of Japan.

As far as the readiness of U.S. forces in East Asia was concerned, therefore, there had been no plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

Rumsfeld’s decision, however, kicked off a drive toward reorganization of the U.S. military posture in East Asia. It was a massive plan constructed through strenuous efforts by the best and the brightest in the U.S. State and Defense departments. Needless to say, negotiations with financial authorities as well as the U.S. Congress were needed.

In the course of these discussions, people on Guam, the presumed destination of the relocated military facilities, began to harbor expectations of a massive investment in the island’s infrastructure and facilities.

American indignation over the subsequent standstill in implementing the reorganization plan is understandable. It is only natural for Americans to ask: “Is that all we get for our hard work?”

“How are you going to explain the delay to Congress?”

“Are you going to trample on the expectations of the people of Guam?”

Strictly speaking, however, these are complaints about the way the issue has been handled — not criticism of the strategic aspects of the decision.

To begin with, the entire plan was triggered by the impetuous reaction of the American side. From the beginning, the plan was not based on profound strategic needs.

The strategic situation in East Asia has undergone significant changes. When this reorganization plan was being formed, the main forces of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa were being dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan, one after another.

From the U.S. perspective, it would not have made too much difference if the U.S. troops had been sent to Iraq via Okinawa or via Guam. Note that this was before the dramatic expansion of China’s naval and air capabilities in recent years.

Given these facts, maybe the delay in the reorganization plan should be viewed as a divine favor for the U.S.

Currently U.S. military expenditures are due for drastic reduction. One of the gravest consequences of cutting the military budget would be insufficient readiness to cope with the expansion of the Chinese military capabilities in the Western Pacific. Concern about this has been clearly expressed in remarks made by the U.S. secretaries of State and Defense.

Is it not time that the U.S. government switch the large amount of funds to be set aside for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps to Guam to the defense of East Asia, instead?

Is it also not time for Washington to request that the Japanese government divert the huge budget it has set aside to support the relocation to strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance in East Asia instead?

As far as Okinawa is concerned, if we go back to the origin of the issue starting in 1995, Okinawan people’s wishes will be met if the marine air station is transferred from heavily populated Futenma to Henoko in the northern part of the same island.

The transfer to Henoko would show that the U.S. is concerned about even the slightest possibility of an accident at Futenma. Besides, all the funds for the relocation will be used in Okinawa, benefitting the local economy.

Beyond this, however, the reorganization plan for the U.S. military in Japan must be reconstructed under a new strategy based on fresh analyses of the East Asian situation in the decades to come.

No one who is familiar with the current political situation in Okinawa, be it an American or a Japanese, expects that the Futenma issue will be settled easily. It should be obvious to anyone that it would be more harmful than anything else to press for an early settlement of an issue not expected to be settled easily.

Given the situation in East Asia, it would be far more justifiable, from the viewpoint of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance, for Washington to pressure the Japanese government to expand its spending on defense, exercise the right of collective self-defense and relax the three-point ban on arms exports.

Those should be on the top of the agenda in the present and future U.S.-Japan talks between heads of states as well as in all official and unofficial contacts.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The original Japanese version of this article appeared in the Sept. 15 Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.