Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted jointly for Weekly Toyo Keizai, and Dispatch Japan. Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, is chairman, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, subcommittee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Webb is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Along with Senators Levin and McCain, Webb has been highly critical of the 2006 plan to realign US forces in Japan. The three senators recently worked together to block funding for a large transfer of US Marines from Okinawa to Guam, arguing that the plan was unworkable, and not reflective of the current strategic environment in the region. While the Obama administration has done its best to be dismissive of these Congressional efforts, it is now clear that Pentagon is trying to adjust its plans to better conform with the Senators's goals.
TBL: The Obama Administration seems serious about a pivot of US foreign policy toward East Asia. But administrations over the past 30 years have talked about this, only to be diverted. Is it real this time?
WEBB: I’ve been writing about this, and working in East Asia for a long time.. When I was in the Pentagon in the 1980s, I think I was the first senior defense executive to say that the strategic future of the US needs to focus on East Asia, and not as much on NATO. At that time, we had 216,000 Army soldiers in Germany alone. I suggested back in 1984-1985 that we needed to start strategically rebalancing.
I have been pushing this issue every day since I arrived in the Senate. Frankly, I had quite a few discussions with Hillary Clinton about this before she became secretary of state, and then subsequent to her nomination and confirmation.
In my view, this is not so much a pivot, as it is a reestablishing of a vital strategic interest that we have in the region. Our national energy became deflected because of the way we went into Iraq, and the energy we put into Iraq and Afghanistan. So it is more of a return to normal with respect to our strategic interests.
When I came to the Senate, I worked very hard to become a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and I decided that from my office, we would focus on five countries in East Asia: to reinvigorate our relations with Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore, and to work on renewing ties with a sixth country – Myanmar, Burma. That was our strategic perspective from the day I got here.
TBL: But the Administration is really committed, in your view?
WEBB: It is real, and I frankly think I have been a big part of the process. We are connecting with the governments and cultures of these countries, and we are articulating why our presence in this part of the world is important to regional stability. Over the past two years, we have seen the realities of the region affirm this perspective.
I have visited Japan many times. In February, 2010, while in Tokyo, I spoke to the National Press Club, and then went down to Okinawa. They like Americans; they like the relationship. The question of the security relationship was not as firm. DPJ leader Ozawa had made a trip to China with some 200 people.
But a short time later, in September 2010, we had the incident with China and the Senkaku Islands, and that, I think, led people in Japan and the region to start thinking in a different way.
I had warned about the Senkaku Islands in my Senate campaign, in the last debate with Senator Allen, when we were allowed to ask each other questions. The overall issue is the recognized need for a vibrant US role and for multilateral cooperation in the region, which are critical to issues such as sovereignty in the South China Sea for example, and resolution of environmental disputes along the lower Mekong River.
TBL: How does the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade initiative fit in this picture?
WEBB: TPP is an emerging concept; ratifying itself as it goes along. But the notion of countries coming together with us in this kind of format does affirm that we should have a very strong presence in the region.
We have seen free trade agreements that China has negotiated with ASEAN and other countries that could potentially give China tariff benefits. I was a bit skeptical of TPP at the beginning, but with the countries now coming on board, I am more in favor.
TBL: Many top Japanese leaders remain skeptical about some of the economic details, but see TPP as creating a strategic architecture to which China has to respond.
WEBB: That is a valid point. I view over strategic interests in two stages. First, the Korean Peninsula. Korea is the only place in the world where the direct interests of Japan, China, and Russia intersect historically. Over the centuries, whenever one of these three has gotten a bit too much power, there has been a lot of volatility. I think that since World War II, people have come to see that the United States is the balancing force in the region. And if there is not stability in Northeast Asia, we won’t have stability in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, given the emergence of China, the best overall approach we can take is to develop multilateral systems, and to invite China to mature as a governing entity that is welcomed to participate.
China may not do that right away. This is the 10th anniversary of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and there are questions as to whether this has really been the benefit that many Americans thought it would be as a means of easing Chinese political rigidity.
But we now see a lot of nations saying the time has come for China to be more overt in helping other countries solve problems, rather than always taking stances that only favor Beijing.
In that context, TPP, and Mekong development, and the South China Sea are all issues where the US can facilitate multilateral approaches that add to stability.
TBL: How do you see the future of the US military force structure in East Asia?
WEBB: I believe it is important to our ability to respond that we have forward positioning of forces in East Asia. Okinawa and Guam are important in that regard. The reverse is also true: If we were to reposition our forces in the wrong way, it would send a negative signal with respect to strategic balance in the region. The US Marine Corps is uniquely suited for an immediate response anywhere in the region. I’ve worked on and studied this issue for many years, including as a defense planner. We don’t have the same force structure now that we did when I first began, obviously, particularly with respect to the size of our Navy, but the concept remains valid.
TBL: But we’ve reached an impasse with Japan with respect to a replacement for the Marine Air Station Futenma, on Okinawa. Political leaders in Tokyo are reluctant to say the planned Henoko facility can’t move forward politically, but that is what most believe. So how does this impasse get resolved?
WEBB: You are spot on about this point. I mentioned this to Senator Levin two years ago, after a trip to the region. We have to resolve this. A resolution is critical to our strategic viability, and the issue has also become a key abrasion in Japan’s domestic politics. So this year, Senator Levin asked me to accompany him to the region. We visited Guam, Tinian, Okinawa, and Tokyo, and he came to share my concerns. Upon our return, we brought then-Defense Secretary Gates in to talk with us. He can speak can speak for himself, but I would say that he shared our view of the futility of the current approach. The question is: How to resolve the impasse in a fashion that is positive, rather than in a way that looks as if we are losing our critical presence in that part of the world?
This question belongs to the Pentagon. Inter-service rivalry and turf battles are driving a lot of the resistance. I think you quoted a Marine official in one of your articles saying completion of a new facility at Henoko would be the 8th wonder of the world. I’ve heard similar sentiments.
TBL: Neither Tokyo nor Washington can say what each is thinking.
WEBB: The two national governments are paralyzed by these expressed positions. The only way to change is if there is a specific proposal to move toward. We can’t theorize anymore about this; it’s been going on for 15 years. That is the box they are in.
I suggested to Defense Secretary Panetta, before he visited the region in October, the idea of expanding the Naha runway facilities into a joint-use facility. That would help Japan commercially, but would also give us a mobilization fall-back. We’ve done this in Germany. We did in on Guam many years ago, which had a runway that was military on one side and commercial on the other.
This is just a thought. My point is that we do not have to be paralyzed between the existing Futenma facility and the Henoko option that doesn’t seem realistic.
TBL: Looking forward, how comfortable would you be with a bigger regional role for Japan’s defense forces, especially a marine force?
WEBB: When I studied this in the 1970s, I was in favor of Japan doing more with us in joint operations, particularly related to naval activities. My conclusion back then – admittedly a long time ago – was that Japan’s constitution did not preclude a bigger role in joint operations. But there continue to be historic issues that are not insignificant. Japan has to work out its own relationships in the region.
TBL: Will Mark Lippert be confirmed as the new assistant secretary of defense for Asia?
WEBB: I know that Senator McCain has sent a letter to him, raising some concerns. I had a private meeting with Mark after the confirmation hearings, and I was favorably impressed.