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    Japan
     Mar 6, 2010
Page 1 of 2
Okinawa and the new domino effect
By John Feffer

For a country with a pacifist constitution, Japan is bristling with weaponry. Indeed, that Asian land has long functioned as a huge aircraft carrier and naval base for United States military power. We couldn't have fought wars in Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1959-1975) without the nearly 90 military bases scattered around the islands of our major Pacific ally. Even today, Japan remains the anchor of what's left of America's Cold War containment policy when it comes to China and North Korea. From the Yokota and Kadena air bases, the United States can dispatch troops and bombers across Asia, while the Yokosuka base near Tokyo is the largest American naval installation outside the United States.

You'd think that, with so many Japanese bases, the United States wouldn't make a big fuss about closing one of them. Think

  

again. The current battle over the US Marine Corps air base at Futenma on Okinawa - an island prefecture almost 1,600 kilometers south of Tokyo that hosts about three dozen US bases and 75% of American forces in Japan - is just revving up. In fact, Washington seems ready to stake its reputation and its relationship with a new Japanese government on the fate of that base alone, which reveals much about US anxieties in the age of President Barack Obama.

What makes this so strange, on the surface, is that Futenma is an obsolete base. Under an agreement the George W Bush administration reached with the previous Japanese government, the US was already planning to move most of the Marines now at Futenma to the island of Guam. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is insisting, over the protests of Okinawans and the objections of Tokyo, on completing that agreement by building a new partial replacement base in a less heavily populated part of Okinawa.

The current row between Tokyo and Washington is no mere "Pacific squall", as Newsweek dismissively described it. After six decades of saying yes to everything the United States has demanded, Japan finally seems on the verge of saying no to something that matters greatly to Washington, and the relationship that Dwight D Eisenhower once called an "indestructible alliance" is displaying ever more hairline fractures. Worse yet, from the Pentagon's perspective, Japan's resistance might prove infectious - one major reason why the United States is putting its alliance on the line over the closing of a single antiquated military base and the building of another of dubious strategic value.

During the Cold War, the Pentagon worried that countries would fall like dominoes before a relentless communist advance. Today, the Pentagon worries about a different kind of domino effect. In Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries are refusing to throw their full support behind the US war in Afghanistan. In Africa, no country has stepped forward to host the headquarters of the Pentagon's new Africa Command. In Latin America, little Ecuador has kicked the US out of its air base in Manta.

All of these are undoubtedly symptoms of the decline in respect for American power that the US military is experiencing globally. But the current pushback in Japan is the surest sign yet that the American empire of overseas military bases has reached its high-water mark and will soon recede.

Toady no more?
Until recently, Japan was virtually a one-party state, and that suited Washington just fine. The long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had the coziest of bipartisan relations with that city's policymakers and its "chrysanthemum club" of Japan-friendly pundits. A recent revelation that, in 1969, Japan buckled to president Richard Nixon's demand that it secretly host US ships carrying nuclear weapons - despite Tokyo's supposedly firm anti-nuclear principles - has pulled back the curtain on only the tip of the toadyism.

During and after the Cold War, Japanese governments bent over backwards to give Washington whatever it wanted. When government restrictions on military exports got in the way of the alliance, Tokyo simply made an exception for the United States. When cooperation on missile defense contradicted Japan's ban on militarizing space, Tokyo again waved a magic wand and made the restriction disappear.

Although Japan's constitution renounces the "threat or the use of force as a means of settling international disputes", Washington pushed Tokyo to offset the costs of the US military adventure in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991, and Tokyo did so. Then, from November 2001 until just recently, Washington persuaded the Japanese to provide refueling in the Indian Ocean for vessels and aircraft involved in the war in Afghanistan. In 2007, the Pentagon even tried to arm-twist Tokyo into raising its defense spending to pay for more of the costs of the alliance.

Of course, the LDP complied with such demands because they intersected so nicely with its own plans to bend that country's peace constitution and beef up its military. Over the last two decades, in fact, Japan has acquired remarkably sophisticated hardware, including fighter jets, in-air refueling capability, and assault ships that can function like aircraft carriers. It also amended the 1954 Self-Defense Forces Law, which defines what the Japanese military can and cannot do, more than 50 times to give its forces the capacity to act with striking offensive strength. Despite its "peace constitution", Japan now has one of the top militaries in the world.

Enter the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). In August 2009, that upstart political party dethroned the LDP, after more than a half-century in power, and swept into office with a broad mandate to shake things up. Given the country's nose-diving economy, the party's focus has been on domestic issues and cost-cutting. Not surprisingly, however, the quest to cut pork from the Japanese budget has led the party to scrutinize the alliance with the US. Unlike most other countries that host US military bases, Japan shoulders most of the cost of maintaining them: more than $4 billion per year in direct or indirect support.

Under the circumstances, the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama proposed something modest indeed - putting the US-Japan alliance on, in the phrase of the moment, a "more equal" footing. It inaugurated this new approach in a largely symbolic way by ending Japan's resupply mission in the Indian Ocean (though Tokyo typically sweetened the pill by offering a five-year package of $5 billion in development assistance to the Afghan government).

More substantively, the Yukio Hatoyama government also signaled that it wanted to reduce its base-support payments. Japan's proposed belt-tightening comes at an inopportune moment for the Obama administration, as it tries to pay for two wars, its "overseas contingency operations", and a worldwide network of more than 700 military bases. The burdens of US overseas operations are increasing, and fewer countries are proving willing to share the costs.

Of dugongs and democracy
The immediate source of tension in the US-Japanese relationship has been Tokyo's desire to renegotiate that 2006 agreement to close Futenma, transfer those 8,000 Marines to Guam, and build a new base in Nago, a less densely populated area of the island. It's a deal that threatens to make an already strapped government pay big. Back in 2006, Tokyo promised to shell out more than $6 billion just to help relocate the Marines to Guam.

The political cost to the new government of going along with the LDP's folly may be even higher. After all, the DPJ received a healthy chunk of voter support from Okinawans, dissatisfied with the 2006 agreement and eager to see the American occupation of their island end. Over the last several decades, with US bases built cheek-by-jowl in the most heavily populated parts of the island, Okinawans have endured air, water, and noise pollution, accidents like a 2004 US helicopter crash at Okinawa International University, and crimes that range from trivial speeding violations all the way up to the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three Marines in 1995.

According to a June 2009 opinion poll, 68% of Okinawans opposed relocating Futenma within the prefecture, while only 18% favored the plan. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party, a junior member of the ruling coalition, has threatened to pull out if Hatoyama backs away from his campaign pledge not to build a new base in Okinawa.

Then there's the dugong, a sea mammal similar to the manatee that looks like a cross between a walrus and a dolphin and was the likely inspiration for the mermaid myth. Only 50 specimens of this endangered species are still living in the marine waters threatened by the proposed new base near less populated Nago. In a landmark case, Japanese lawyers and American environmentalists filed suit in US federal court to block the base's construction and save the dugong.

Realistically speaking, even if the Pentagon were willing to appeal the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, lawyers and environmentalists could wrap the US military in so much legal and bureaucratic red tape for so long that the new base might never leave the drawing board.

For environmental, political, and economic reasons, ditching the 2006 agreement is a no-brainer for Tokyo. Given Washington's insistence on retaining a base of little strategic importance, however, the challenge for the DPJ has been to find a site other than Nago. The Japanese government floated the idea of merging the Futenma facility with existing facilities at Kadena, another US base on the island. But that plan - as well as possible relocation to other parts of Japan - has met with stiff local resistance. A proposal to further expand facilities in Guam was nixed by the governor there.

The solution to all this is obvious: close down Futenma without opening another base. But so far, the US is refusing to make it easy for the Japanese. In fact, Washington is doing all it can to box the new government in Tokyo into a corner.

Ratcheting up the pressure
The US military presence in Okinawa is a residue of the Cold War and a US commitment to containing the only military power on the horizon that could threaten American military supremacy. Back in the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration's solution to a rising China was to "integrate, but hedge". The hedge - against the possibility of China developing a serious mean streak - centered around a strengthened US-Japan alliance and a credible Japanese military deterrent.

What the Clinton administration and its successors didn't anticipate was how effectively and peacefully China would disarm this hedging strategy with careful statesmanship and a vigorous trade policy. A number of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia, succumbed early to China's version of checkbook diplomacy. Then, in the last decade, South Korea, like the Japanese today, started to talk about establishing "more equal" relations with the US in an effort to avoid being drawn into any future military scrape between Washington and Beijing. 

Continued 1 2  


Webb walks the line on redeployment
(Feb 19, '10)

Okinawa call to shape new US-Japan era
(Feb 5, '10)

Japan: A new battle over Okinawa
(Nov 13, '09)


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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Mar 3, 2010)

 
 



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