NMF Exclusive : The Importance of Okinawa in US-Japan Relations
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Government in Tokyo got a partial reprieve from the long-standing problems plaguing US-Japan relations, over the US military presence in Okinawa, during Japanese Prime Minister’s first formal visit to US since the DPJ government came to power in 2009. After Prime Minister Yoshihoko Noda’s meeting with President Barak Obama, an Agreement was signed on April 27 that Washington would move about 9000 marines out of Okinawa. Of the departing contingent, 4000 will be re-located to Guam and about 2700 will be sent to Hawaii while the remainder will rotate through a Marine base in Darwin, Australia.
It may be recalled that Okinawa is an important strategic base for the American forces in the Pacific and hosts more than half of the 47000 US troops based in Japan. The citizens of Okinawa have long been demanding that the Marine base as well as Futenma air base, both in Okinawa, be shifted out from the current location. After much wrangling, the US and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led government in Japan had in 2006 signed a “US-Japan Road Map for Realignment Implementation Agreement”. This Agreement had envisaged shifting of the Futenma air base from the middle of the crowded city of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko in northern Okinawa. It had also envisaged that 8000 Marines and their dependants would be re-located to Guam by 2014 and that the Japanese Government would bear about 60 per cent of the re-location cost. The April 2012 Agreement, thus, only partially addresses the issues since it makes no reference to shifting of the Futenma air base.
During the 2009 elections, the DPJ plank had been that it would reconsider the 2006 relocation plan and shift the airbase out of Okinawa if not possible out of Japan altogether. However, after it came to power, the party was unable to work out a mutually acceptable solution to the relocation issue, which cost Yukio Hatoyama his Prime Ministership. Ever since, the US and Japan have dilly-dallied over the issue.
Japan’s financial situation is rather precarious at the moment. Its government debt has reached around 230 per cent of its GDP which precludes bearing the entirety of the relocation cost of US forces. As per the April 2012 agreement, Tokyo will pay up to $2.8 billion out of the total cost of relocation viz. $8.6 billion. The former figure is a significant reduction from the $6.09 billion agreed upon in 2006. Tokyo’s share of the relocation would be used for building houses, schools and other facilities in Guam as well as for developing the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
The US wants to diversify its military assets in the Pacific
The current plan is in line with President Obama’s goal to give the military a geographically distributed presence in the Pacific. The US feels the pinch of China’s ‘credible’ military capability, including its long-range missiles, especially the latest Anti- Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) DF-21D which can potentially target US carrier strike groups. In this context, the USA cannot completely vacate a strategic military base close to China. The US wants to strengthen deterrence in the Pacific and make its military more flexible so as to be ready with rapid responses to various contingencies. The US-Japan military alliance is the cornerstone of the US-led East Asian security architecture. The alliance has to remain strong in the context of regional security challenges, including North Korea’s sabre-rattling. After the failed ballistic missile test, there is speculation that Pyongyang may go in for a third nuclear test.
A plan to build strategic partnership
The US’ East Asia policy has now become a part of its larger Indo-Pacific policy which seeks to build strategic partnerships with other regional countries. The US seeks to counter China’s rise with a network of ‘strategic partnerships’ with other Asian countries, which it hopes will help to stabilize the regional situation and preserve US interests in the region. In fact the Noda-Obama joint statement called for a new vision for the US-Japan alliance that will help shape the Asia-Pacific region “for decades to come” and help maintain stability in the region. It also asked for both countries to “work with partners in the region to strengthen institutions and foster networks that are open, inclusive, and support internationally accepted rules and norms, including through fora such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and APEC”.
On the positive side, the Noda government can take credit for shifting of the US Marines gradually out of Okinawa. But the Futenma issue will continue be listed as a stalemate in the relationship. Japan’s efforts to have a more independent profile in its security and foreign policies appear to succeed to the extent that its dependence on the US reduces but the alliance system remains intact. In so far as theUnited States is concerned, it cannot abandon a key ally in the Asia-Pacific region, even though the latter is seeking an increasingly equal partnership. Both the countries want to strengthen the alliance system but minimize the economic costs. The settlement of the Futenma air base issue, however, remains in the realm of the future. This is the importance of Okinawa in the US-Japan relations.
Joshy M. Paul is an Associate Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org