Japan, U.S. Debate Futenma, But No Break Expected

8 MINS READMar 1, 2012 | 14:34 GMT
U.S. military staff and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at Futenma air base on Feb. 27
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently visited the island of Okinawa, where the issue of relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has created notable controversy. Noda's visit preceded a two-day meeting between Japanese and U.S. officials in Tokyo over the issue. Washington's relocation plan has prompted strong opposition, hindering its implementation. This matter has helped keep U.S.-Japanese relations cool, but deeper geopolitical imperatives and shared interests guarantee that the alliance between Tokyo and Washington will remain strong.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made his first official visit to the island province of Okinawa the weekend of Feb. 25-27. The visit came ahead of a two-day meeting between Japanese and U.S. officials about the fate of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is currently located in Okinawa and set for relocation within the province. The plans to relocate the base have fueled a powerful controversy — Okinawans vocally oppose both the continued presence of Futenma in its current location and the 2006 U.S.-Japanese agreement calling for the base to be moved to a more rural location. This opposition is delaying the execution of the 2006 agreement, and officials from both countries are in negotiations to try to overcome this impasse.

The episode comes during a stalled period in U.S.-Japanese relations. At least six years of frequently changing Japanese Cabinets have made it difficult to move forward with the planned U.S. realignment of forces and with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, two strategic parts of Washington's re-engagement with the Asia-Pacific region. Though the Futenma issue has become problematic, the United States and Japan have too many shared interests and geopolitical imperatives for their alliance to crumble.

Okinawa's Importance

Okinawa, which saw the last major World War II battle in the Pacific theater, was a de facto U.S. protectorate for almost 30 years. Its strategic location near Taiwan, the Chinese mainland, the Korean Peninsula and Japan made Okinawa important in U.S. forward deployment of forces in the western rim of the Pacific Basin. The island was a regional hub for U.S. armed forces in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, giving the United States a logistical base from which to project airpower over the East and South China seas.

However, since the adoption of Japan's pacifist Constitution, there has been local opposition to military use of the province, especially since the number of U.S. bases it hosts is disproportionate to its size (Okinawa is 1 percent of Japanese territory but hosts 70 percent of the bases in the country, which are used exclusively by the United States). Since Okinawa returned to Japanese rule in 1972, opposition to U.S. bases on the island has increased.

Controversy and Current Developments

Partly as a response to local concerns, but also with the broader goal of updating the strategic alignment of U.S. forces in the region, the Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement in 2006 that would send approximately 8,000 Marines of the III Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa to Guam. According to the agreement, the transfer would be finalized by 2014. But the agreement had an important condition: Japan would be responsible (logistically and financially) for transferring Futenma's equipment and facilities from Ginowan City to its new location in Henoko Point, a more rural part of northern Okinawa. Opposition to this agreement has delayed the relocation.

The main point of contention is that the original relocation plan called for the construction of an offshore runway that would sit atop a coral reef — the home of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal. Opposition has come not only from locals concerned for their natural environment (and in some cases livelihood), but also from outside environmentalist, left-wing and pacifist groups calling for a total U.S. withdrawal from Okinawa. Local resistance became particularly strong after successive Democratic Party of Japan Cabinets were seen as mishandling the issue.  

Okinawan Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who holds de facto veto power over the decision, is pressuring the central government to move the Futenma base out of the province, though there are not many other places where the base could feasibly go. Futenma is not a stand-alone facility — it is linked to the network of U.S. facilities elsewhere in the region, particularly the other Marine bases in Okinawa (including Camps Courtney, Foster, Hansen, Lester, Kinser and Schwab) — making relocation outside of the province tactically problematic for Washington. Moreover, very few governors of other provinces seem willing to host the base, which leaves Henoko as the only viable option.

The U.S.-Japanese Alliance

In February, U.S. and Japanese officials engaged in negotiations about revisions to the 2006 agreement. The first revision announced stated that the United States will move only approximately 4,700 Marines to Guam, with the remaining 3,300 being sent to different Asia-Pacific locations on a rotational basis. Moreover, the proposed move will be detached from the Futenma part of the agreement, meaning it will take place regardless of further delays in the base's relocation. Negotiations have continued in what Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called a "flexible manner," which indicates that more changes can be expected.

The outcome of this issue is uncertain, and although the Noda Cabinet has declared the U.S.-Japanese alliance the cornerstone of its foreign policy, so far the Cabinet has not been able to dispel the general sense of stagnation and frustration in the relationship. Despite the seeming intractability of this issue, it is not likely to lead to an unraveling of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, which is governed by many underlying regional strategic imperatives.

First, the United States wants to distribute its forces in a manner that is more sustainable politically and economically, which means spreading its forces more broadly across multiple countries. Moreover, the need to make the U.S. presence in the region resilient against political and military threats dictates the need to distribute U.S. forces evenly throughout several countries. This likely will mean an eventual reduction in the area occupied by U.S. bases in Okinawa and the number of forces based there.

Second, although Japan is seeking to improve its relationships with its Asian neighbors, particularly China, tensions within the region tie Japanese interests to those of the United States. The divergent Japanese and Chinese geographic and economic imperatives in the region (such as control over disputed territories and resources) and historical rivalry give Tokyo reason to continue its close cooperation with Washington. More important, Japan's desire to increase its influence in the region both economically and militarily coincides with Washington's plans for Tokyo to play a greater role in the United States' Asia-Pacific re-engagement.

Third, Japan faces a continued threat from a seemingly erratic North Korean regime and, more important, from the ongoing growth of China's navy and repeated incursions of both civilian and military Chinese vessels into territory that Japan either claims or controls. China's strategic imperative to control its "first island chain," of which the southern archipelago of Okinawa and Taiwan are a part, emphasizes the value of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and the basing of forces in Okinawa. Japan benefits from the deterrent power of an armed U.S. presence, while the United States gains the capability to project its power into the Far East from bases in Japan. The U.S. presence is particularly important given Japan's traditional reluctance to engage in military ventures that could raise the ire of neighboring countries that harbor deep anti-Japanese sentiments.

Potential Developments

Though political inertia in Japan's central government and strong opposition in Okinawa are complicating the Futenma issue, the relocation controversy is not insurmountable. Most local citizens are opposed to the original relocation plan mainly because the new location would involve building offshore, which would damage the environment and the livelihoods of local fishermen. Changes in the plan could make relocation more palatable to the locals, especially since the base's presence could help reactivate the local economy.  This would be an important step, since local politicians' opposition to the relocation plan stems more from political need than personal opinion. If the locals agree to it, then provincial and municipal officials could agree to it as well. 

Although the Futenma controversy might seem like a hindrance to U.S. forces' capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, other regional hubs in Japan, such as the Kadena and Misawa military facilities, will still give the United States robust power projection capabilities, even if Futenma ceases to provide basing for Marine air assets in Okinawa. Moreover, current political dynamics could lead this issue to evolve in such a way that the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) assumes more responsibility for national and regional security. The JSDF is gradually moving toward greater involvement in security matters outside Japan's immediate vicinity. Furthermore, Chinese incursions into waters claimed by Japan have sparked a domestic debate on whether Japanese security services, such as the coast guard, should have broader authority. This trend would only grow if the United States seems to have less of a presence in the area because of a continued impasse over Futenma. (Similar trends have emerged in Taiwan, where a potential reduction of the U.S. presence in Okinawa is seen as necessitating stronger, independent Taiwanese defense capabilities.)

The Futenma controversy does not pose a long-term threat to the U.S.-Japanese alliance, nor does the current Japanese political landscape. Though there is a sense that the U.S.-Japanese relationship has stalled because of difficult issues like domestic resistance to the Okinawa bases and the TPP, regional dynamics and more than half a century of close relations will help ensure the endurance of the security alliance between Tokyo and Washington.

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