Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a fine speech at the US Naval Academy yesterday, outlining the new US approach to East Asia.
But she barely mentioned Japan, the allied nation where the US has its only forward-deployed aircraft carrier group (Yokosuka), and its only forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Force (Okinawa), not to mention the biggest air force base in the Western Pacific (Kadena).
All in Japan.
The US forward-deployed presence in Japan is courtesy of an independent Japan. And it’s good for Japan’s own security; that’s why it works, and why Americans should never take the alliance for granted; nor should Japanese officials.
American and Japanese officials have mismanaged this crucial relationship over the past few years. Both sides share irresponsibility. The Democratic Party of Japan was not really prepared to take charge in 2009. The US, at best, was not prepared to see the DPJ succeed; many in Washington wanted the DPJ to fail.
Unfortunately, the US continues to embrace dismissive attitudes toward Japan that are not far removed from the Occupation era.
Behind the scene, many US strategists argue that the US should cultivate the alliance; Japanese thoughts and opinions cannot be taken for granted. At the same time, somewhat-frustrated US officials say Japan would be best to not ignore regional and global responsibilities.
REBALANCE: The core of the new US approach to Asia started in July, 2010, with Hillary Clinton’s speech in Hanoi, warning China to not use force to resolve territorial disputes.
Then came the Sankaku dispute between Japan and China, in September 2010. The US, largely led by Kurt Campbell, did not flinch: immediate support for Japan.
But Campbell is restricted, lacking the power to break through the bureaucratic nightmare created by US military interservice rivalies. The problem is compounded by budget restraints; construction on Guam is far off-schedule.
Until to 2010 Senkaku flash, the Obama administration had invested in the notion of China as a “partner.” But the Chinese leadership saw a US in decline. The US offered a hand to Beijing. It was not totally rejected, but rejected enough to wake up the Obama administration: China is not an enemy, but certainly not a strategic partner.
Suddenly, Japan came back into the picture.
THE ASIA “TILT”: The rebalance from Iraq-Afghanistan to East Asia is real. Barack Obama is personally driving this shift in attention toward Asia. Those who know Obama know that this was on his mind from day-one of his administration. And the top tier of the National Security Council agrees. At the State Department, Clinton and her top Asia aides are fully on board.
USTR, with Wendy Cutler running the TPP policy, remain skeptical of Japan’s trade policy, but very-much open to talks. Cutler is trying to forge a consensus among key US business and labor constituencies to push ahead with TPP.
WHAT’S NEW: For 30 years, US Asia specialists, and many strategists, have been longing for a coherent, consistent US policy toward East Asia. Not much has happened.
Only now is the US: a) really engaging ASEAN; b) not dreaming of a partnership with China; and, c) being somewhat consistent in policy toward North Korea; d) all at the same time. A clear, consistant policy.
It is this consistence and commitment to the Pacific that the US has lacked, especially on trade, but overall strategic alliances: Too willing to overlook local concerns, acting more with a sense of privilege than partnership.
WHAT ABOUT JAPAN: The Obama Administration did a good job in response to the 3-11 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis. The basic friendship between the two countries rose to perhaps an unprecedented level.
FUTENMA: But there is a particular problem – the US Marine presence on Okinawa – that threatens to undermine all that is good in the US-Japan alliance.
This impasse has to end.
The US-Japan alliance is critical to global stability.
But US officials are not managing the alliance with that sense of urgency, and ignore the political realities in Japan that occupy Prime Minister Noda.
The specific issue is the US Marine Air Station Futenma, which has been scheduled for closure for the past 16 years. Bureaucrats from the two sides agreed to build an alternative base further north, in the Henoko Bay, close to Nago city. But the local population opposed, and a stalemate ensued.
There was never a need for a new base. The US Marines have never -- ever -- explained why they need a new runway, except to privately say that the infamous Osprey might malfuction.
The solution to the Futenma Replacement Facility (FRF) has been clear for a long time, but turf wars between the US Air Force and the US Marines have blocked a solution. And a war-torn Obama administration has failed to intervene to resolve the silly inter-service rivalry.
THE SOLUTION: The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which includes 2,500 Marines and is tagged as ‘special forces capable,’ should remain. Those Marines would be available for quick deployments – either humanitarian relief or the securing of North Korean ports in the event of conflict. The MEU operates largely on its own, a component of, but not dependent on the total 18,000-manned 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. The 31st MEU operates in close coordination with the USS Essex, out of Sasebo, in southern Japan. The helicopter unit, now based at Futenma, could be integrated into the huge Kadena air base that is managed by the US Air Force, or into a new heliport facility at Camp Hansen (US Marine), combined with pre-positioned supplies and equipment jointly maintained offshore on ships by the US and Japan. Regular joint training with Japanese forces -- and US access to Japanese facilities in the event of a regional contingency -- could be negotiated. All of the rest of the 3rd MEF could be based in Guam, Hawaii, or Camp Pendleton, close to San Diego, which will have plenty of space because of the scheduled reduction in overall Marine Corps ranks.
To soothe any fears of a US weakening its deterrent capability in the region, the US could permanently base an Ohio-class submarine, with 54 Tomahawk missiles (non-nuclear, but very powerful) at Yokosuka, and rotate strategic bombers into Misawa, in the northern part of Japan’s Honshu island.
Beijing would get the point.
The US and Japan recently completed an upgrading of the Yokosuka naval facilities, allowing for a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and the upgrade makes it easy for a submarine to also be home-ported there.
With the thoughtful rebalance toward Asia underway, new basing and visitation rights can be negotiated throughout the region. The Darwin (Australia arrangement) should just be the beginning.
This is not rocket science.
The problem is: Prime Minister Noda's visit to the US is coming up, and the two sides have not made any visible progress on the Okinawa issue.
This is turf war among the US military at its worst. In the big picture, it makes little sense that this little Futenma base continues to cause so much trouble in US-Japan relations.
Only Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, or President Obama himself, has the power to break through this logjam.
This is no way to run an alliance.