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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.