Now, Washington.

From the point of view of the United States, Futenma is an unwelcome distraction. America is a busy country right now, with a raft of foreign policy problems to solve. Arms control, Iran, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are weighty issues that require a lot of time and attention.

I find myself sympathetic to Washington’s position. The fact that Futenma is a big deal in Japan and not in America is telling. America is busy. Japan is not. America is dealing with global issues, Japan is not. Japan benefits from America’s involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, our military attention to China and North Korea, and our reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. This is all attention Japan does not get, but benefits from anyway, in large part because it refuses to have a mature foreign policy.

Clearly the United States is amenable to moving Futenma–it did sign the 2005 agreement after all. The problem is that there is no good alternative for basing the Marines. Okinawa is a small island with a limited amount of room. The 2005 agreement puts the airstrip at least partially over water, of all places. As for basing it elsewhere in Japan, consider that Japan is a third of the population of the United States squeezed into a land mass smaller than the State of California. Every proposed relocation of the Futenma contingent involves building over a coral reef, on a small, isolated island, near a UNESCO site, or near a major city. The Japanese religion of Shintoism holds that there are gods under rocks, in waterfalls, forests, and in every nook and cranny of Japan. The Americans are finding out that this really is true.

Despite this, it’s politically impossible to close Futenma. The U.S. cannot pack up the assets based in Futenma and move them off the island without far-reaching regional implications. Is Futenma, as a Marine general recently revealed to a Japanese audience, really necessary for dealing with North Korea? Probably not. There are many ways of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and flying 40 year old helicopters over North Korea is probably not the best one. The message that Futenma sends is that the United States is serious about projecting power into the West Pacific, and that it and Japan are firm military allies. That message is aimed at China, but right now it’s not popular to depict China as a bad guy in Japan, whereas everyone can get behind the North Korean threat. North Korea will eventually go away. China will not.

The United States is pushing a lot of forces into the Pacific to counter China and the North Korean threat. The F-22 Raptor and B-2 stealth bomber have done multiple deployments to the Western Pacific, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was recently replaced with the USS George Washington, the Ohio-class converted SSGNs were all based in the Pacific, and Pacific-oriented US Army forces in Washington and Alaska were recently upgraded. The message is that the United States is serious about projecting power throughout  the Pacific Rim.

In a practical sense, closing Futenma would not really affect America’s defense matrix for the Western Pacific all that much. But while some would laud the United States for respecting the wishes of the current Japanese government and the Okinawans, others would see it as a retreat of American power. The United States cannot afford to be seen as giving ground in the face of a rising China. Closing Futenma and relocating it to Hawaii, Guam, or mainland Japan mixes the message.

The Americans are digging in their heels and are reluctant to renegotiate the 2005 agreement. That may sound arrogant and imperious, but the reality may be that they understand the situation entirely too well, that there is no good alternative, and that despite the hardships endured by the locals it may just be best for everyone to keep there base where it is.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch