Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

I have a strong interest in the U.S. Marine Corps Okinawa basing issue. I don’t post on it very often, mostly because what passes for news usually isn’t. It’s been clear since Hatoyama’s resignation that, barring somebody running out of money, the 2006 agreement is going forward and 8,000 of the roughly 18,000 U.S. Marines based on Okinawa are going to be moved to Guam. In addition to that move, the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be relocated to new facilities at Henoko.

Well, five years after both sides signed the agreement, everybody ran out of money. The 2006 agreement, which is estimated to cost up to $15 billion dollars for Japan and the U.S. each, covers the construction of  new facilities on Okinawa (the Henoko airfield, for  one) but also extensive facilities on the island of Guam. That agreement was expensive in 2006; in 2011 it is unaffordable. Yet because of the symbolism involved in the agreement, which played a large part in bringing down a Japanese government, neither side wants to back down from it now and seek alternatives.

I haven’t blogged on what others have said about Okinawa for various reasons. Most of what’s been going on and reported as news or analysis is just posturing and noise. Some of it is just plain uninspired. None of it, with the exception of organizations such as Close The Base, really gives more than lip service to the people of Okinawa and their concerns. What I’ve been looking for is real alternative to the 2006 agreement that has sound rationale based on strategic realities, and looks out for the Okinawan people.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News, File)

As an American I’m deeply embarrassed that so many American strategic thinkers and think tanks pay so little attention to the Okinawan people. Generally the domestic issue is ignored, and if it isn’t, it’s shrugged off as something for the Japanese government to handle. What I’ve come to observe is that the amount of empathy for the Japanese population in general, and the Okinawan people in particular, is in direct proportion to the amount of time spent with either. Too many Americans who get paid to think about the U.S. – Japan alliance for a living go there on junkets, spend hours in meaningless meetings and conferences with the GoJ and meet a handful of locals. When they get back to D.C. their views are in direct proportion to those Japanese they spent time with. And the Japanese bureaucracy has definite ideas about what it wants.

America is heavily reliant on foreign bases to project power. Overseas bases are America’s Achilles’ heel. Protecting them in local public opinion is one of the most important strategic communications issues America faces. On a tactical level, American theater and base commanders are actually pretty good at projecting a good image. But at the higher, policy level, the U.S. can be indifferent to the foreign public. There, attitudes towards foreign bases can be highly reactionary, that any deviation from the status quo could imperil the entire worldwide base network. There’s no flexibility in a situation that requires exactly that.

Over at CNN’s Global Public Square, Mike Mochizuki and Michael O’Hanlon have an interesting plan, and it does take into account popular Okinawan sentiment. In a nutshell, the plan is this: forget the 2006 agreement. Forget the extra construction on Okinawa and Japan. Bring back “much, if not most” of U.S. Marine Corps combat capability to the continental U.S. Preposition equipment and supplies for a substantial Marine Corps force (like the current MPF system or POMCUS) in Japan and Okinawa. In the event of a crisis, U.S. Marines would fly to Japan, marry up with the prepositioned equipment, and be ready for battle.

Marine Prepositioning ship USNS PFC Eugene Obregon.

Mochizuki and O’Hanlon correctly identify the part of the agreement those on the right would most object to: reducing U.S. Marine Corps forces in the Okinawa/Japan area would be seen as a retreat of American power. But as the two authors note, “troop numbers should not be confused with capability or equipment.” (Emphasis mine.) Prepositioning American equipment abroad has been a credible policy for decades, in use everywhere from Norway to Kuwait.

Could the troops arrive in Okinawa in time to respond to a contingency? During the Cold War, U.S. policy was that it could surge personnel for 3 1/3 U.S. Army divisions into Western Europe in ten days. Today, surging 10,000 Marines into Japan in five days does not sound unfeasible. Does that sound too long? If it does, you either plan on waiting too long before sending them or you may as well just bomb the problem straightaway.

The proposal also has another benefit: it would give native Okinawans, a majority of which oppose U.S. base plans, fewer things to complain about. Granted, some marines would remain, and there would be continued disruptions. But up to 80% would leave, and construction at Henoko would be cancelled. Some Okinawans will always object to any American presence on the island and act accordingly. But to many more, as well as people living near American bases around the world, it would show that America is responsive to their concerns.

Mochizuki and O’Hanlon should be commended for presenting a solution that not only balances Japanese and American security concerns with declining budgets, but would go a ways toward making the locals — everywhere — happy.

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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 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch