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Give Up the 2006 Futenma Agreement: There’s More to the U.S.-Japan Alliance

10 May 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

Ginowan City, with Futenma Air Base in the Center*

In negotiations between democracies, the atmosphere and public perceptions of the negotiations can matter even more than their paper outcome. In negotiations with Japan over relocating Futenma, the U.S. Marine Corps air station in the middle of Ginowan City, it’s time for the United States to recognize that. Maintaining an effective relationship with the Japanese public requires a policy change on Futenma relocation.

The U.S. bases much of its presence in Japan on Okinawa, an island strategically located near the Taiwan Strait. The tactical arguments for why the U.S. marines need to be in Okinawa province are compelling, even if the public relations effort at explaining it has been inept.

Marines operate as a combined air-land-sea force and these different elements would have to be brought to bear together, and quickly, in the event of a crisis–such as an attack on Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. The new V-22 Osprey transport aircraft the Marines plan to deploy there can take off and land vertically, but apparently requires a new long runway “just in case” due to reliability issues.

But the reason the U.S.-Japan relationship works is, more than anything else, strategic rather than tactical. Japan–and, for that matter, Taiwan (as I noted here)–are able to develop closer ties with mainland China because they understand the United States is committed to ensuring their security. The reason the United States is able to protect its allies and economic interests in the region is because commitments have been made in treaties and are consistently repeated at the highest levels. That is a strategic, not a tactical, matter.

Tactical coordination and basing in the region perform two primary tasks, from the American perspective: 1) they help demonstrate how serious the United States is about its commitments; and 2) they prepare U.S. forces to respond in any contingency scenario.

But from the perspective of Asia’s strategic elites, the nature of the U.S. presence matters for a different reason, too. Much better than Americans, they recognize that public support for these alliances in both the United States and its Asian allies is necessary for the strategic message of the U.S. presence to be credible in the long run.

So here’s where we are now: Some 90,000 Okinawans came out from across the political spectrum last month to protest the 2006 plan–and, in many cases, the U.S. presence on Okinawa altogether. Yukio Hatoyama, elected to Japan’s prime ministership last summer; Susumu Inamine, the new mayor of Nago City, elected this January; and the governor of Okinawa depend on public opinion for their political futures.

But as of very recently, the U.S. has simply chanted over and over again that the Futenma relocation agreement, signed in 2006, is a done deal and “it is time to move on.” The agreement would build new runways on reclaimed land in Nago City to enable the Marines to maintain a substantial forward-deployed presence in Okinawa.

The 2006 deal was also intended to lighten the load on Okinawa, shifting 8,000 Marines to Guam and closing Futenma, which is in the middle of a busy city. Still, Okinawans aren’t satisfied.

When the tactical value of a certain kind of deployment could begin undermining the strategic stability of the alliance, it’s time to scrap the idea and come up with something else. The United States should start coming up with new ideas and stop chanting the old ones.

*Photo from flickr under a creative commons license.

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