The lengthy joint security statement set to be issued by the US and Japan today marks the demise of the 2006 bilateral “roadmap” for restructuring US forces in Japan, particularly the plan to construct a facility in the Henoko Bay area of Okinawa to replace to US Marine Air Station Futenma.
No one will say this officially, of course. The two governments will continue to say that they have only postponed the 2014 deadline for completion of the new facility, and the related redeployment of 8,000 US Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
But the plan is dead.
Key members of Congress have moved to block it, insisting that more viable, cost-effective, and innovative ways be found to base and deploy US forces in the strategically critical Asia-Pacific region. In Japan, neither the money nor the political will is present to move forward with construction of a new facility that Okinawans – who generally are supportive of the US-Japan alliance – deeply resent. And on Guam, the building of infrastructure and related facilities needed to host a larger number of servicemen and military equipment is far behind schedule and plagued by cost overruns, which has further angered an increasingly debt-weary Congress.
For now, the most likely outcome of the roadmap’s death is a tacit acceptance of the status quo: 17,000 Marines from the division-size III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) – the only MEF based abroad – will remain based on Okinawa, and the 1,200-acre Futenma base, which is dangerously located in the center of Ginowan City (pop. 91,000), will remain open.
Few Japanese political leaders are prepared at this point to raise the idea of alternative basing options, for fear of provoking the wrath of a Washington that has been surprisingly inflexible on the issue for over a decade. There is virtually no chance that the initiative to start talks on alternative arrangements will come from Tokyo.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is in the midst of a transition from the historic tenure of retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates – truly a momentous era for the Defense Department – to the incoming team of Leon Panetta, who is moving over from the CIA.
Today’s “2+2” meeting of the defense and foreign ministers of Japan and the US takes place with Gates still in office, making it unrealistic to have expected any change in the official US stance on base realignment in Japan to be apparent in the joint statement. Even if Panetta ultimately chooses to initiate a policy change, it will take time for him to put in place his own team to bring that about, not to mention have the opportunity to give the issue the attention it deserves. Not surprisingly, Panetta is extraordinarily focused Afghanistan and Pakistan, as his trip to Pakistan just 10 days ago for talks with top Army and intelligence officials made clear.
But it is also reasonable to assume that Panetta, as part of his deliberations with Congress about overall defense spending, will want to engage the three influential senators – Carl Levin, Jim Webb, and John McCain – who have taken the lead in insisting on changes in US basing plans for the Asia-Pacific region, including the realignment roadmap for US forces in Japan.
As US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, and cutbacks in defense spending proceed, another US global force posture review is likely, in which context the US and Japan could engage in discussions about alliance roles, missions, and force structure, and update a 2006 realignment roadmap that has already been overtaken by events.
ALLIANCE POSITIVES: Problems surrounding Okinawa and US basing notwithstanding, today’s bilateral Security Consultative Committee talks (as the ‘2+2’ is formally known) will highlight the enduring, enormous value of the US-Japan alliance – a genuine coming together based on friendship and shared interests that was on display for the world to see in the wake of the ‘triple disaster’ that hit Japan on March 11. The joint statement to be issued today speaks at length about common security challenges in North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, and other areas, and shared interests in disaster relief, nuclear safety, energy security, climate change, and regional and global economic prosperity.
UNSTABLE STATUS QUO: Still, the collapse of the 2006 roadmap for base realignment can’t simply be papered over by political leaders and government officials from Washington and Tokyo. Almost 16 years after the horrendous assault and rape of a young Okinawan girl by three US servicemen sparked intense protests and led to base realignment plans, the US and Japan have virtually nothing to show for a decade-and-a-half of intense negotiations. Clearly this is no way to run an alliance, especially one of such immense regional and global importance.
The stalemate reveals deep-seated, uncomfortable realities about the structure and management of the bilateral US-Japan alliance, including discrimination by main-island Japanese (and, implicitly the US) against Okinawa, which bears a hugely-disproportionate share of the burden of US military installations in Japan; a continuing (though much-lessened) tendency of Japanese leaders and citizens alike to bear less-than-full responsibility for security matters; and, a lingering, occasional tendency on the part of American military and civilian leaders to adopt the haughty tone of superiority typical of managers dealing with a client-state.
The original purpose of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO), formed by the two countries in November 1995 in the wake of the schoolgirl rape, was to reduce the heavy “footprint” of US military installations on Okinawa. The centerpiece of the SACO agreement, reached in December 1996, was the promised return to Okinawa of the US Marine Air Station Futenma. Virtually everyone agrees Futenma is a disaster just waiting to happen, given its location in a heavily populated area. One helicopter crash in downtown Ginowan City could throw this vital security alliance into crisis.
INTERIM OPTIONS: Futenma is home to Marine tanker aircraft, and Marine helicopters. Original plans called for moving the tanker aircraft to bases in Kyushu; those plans remain intact. The initial plans envisioned movement of the Marine helicopters to some other existing facility on Okinawa. The first option was the giant US Air Force Kadena base, north of Futenma. But intense rivalries between the US Air Force and the US Marines bureaucratically rendered that “unworkable,” with both services making the dubious argument that it would be dangerous having fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operating in close proximity. A second option was to construct a relatively small heliport inside the Camp Schwab Marine base.
Over time, however, the Kadena and Schwab options gave way to the vision of a brand new runway – either offshore, or with landfill – being built in the Henoko Bay area.
Once the runway vision emerged, the search for a replacement for Futenma was no longer about helicopters; it morphed into the new need for a dedicated Marine runway for fixed-wing aircraft.
And over time, US negotiators began to firmly link the closure of Futenma with the construction of the new runway.
The purpose of this runway? The Marines have never provided a consistent, credible explanation. Ministry of Defense officials in Tokyo who have worked intensively on the Futenma replacement issue say they have never been informed about the Marine intentions for the envisioned runway (actually, runways, as plans envision a V-shaped structure). There had been talk by Marine officials of possible use by jet fighters, but Japanese officials counseled against voicing any such intentions for fear of inciting opposition on Okinawa. Since then, US officials have spoken about Gulfstream-style executive jets. Some officials have also mentioned the need for runways in the event that MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft need to conduct emergency landings in fixed-wing (instead of helicopter) mode. The Marines are scheduled to deploy 24 Osprey to Okinawa starting in October 2012, which has infuriated many on Okinawa, including moderate Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.
Once the need for a runway is either eliminated or put aside, the Futenma air station closure could proceed even if the overall base realignment plan is postponed. The Marine tankers at Futenma could move to Kyushu, as planned, and the helicopters (even MV-22 Osprey) could be moved to either Kadena (as envisioned by Senators Levin and Webb), or to a heliport inside of Camp Schwab, which engineers say could be constructed quickly.
Closing Futenma, as both the US and Japanese governments have promised would be done, would go a long way toward easing tensions on Okinawa about the heavy presence of US bases. It would also deeply impress Okinawans if the US were to finally deliver on promises to reduce the noise associated with continuous flights in and out of the huge Kadena air base. Up to now, the US has agreed to modify some flight schedules, only to rotate in other aircraft, with the result of no net noise decrease.
On the other hand, tensions will linger as long as Futenma remains open, especially because the US unilaterally decided to link the Futenma closure to the broader realignment, which the SACO agreement of 15 years ago never envisioned. If Futenma remains open, the 24 Osprey set for deployment to Okinawa next year will likely wind up there.
Okinawans are also worried about political retaliation from Tokyo, in the form of reduced economic aid. An existing large development assistance program is scheduled to expire next year, and renewal talks have barely begun.
FROM INTERIM TO LONG-TERM BASING: There would be relatively few political or technical obstacles to closing the Futenma air station as an interim measure, while postponing the final decisions about overall US basing in Japan and the region until a later date. To the contrary, closing Futenma, and integrating its current assets and operations into existing facilities, would create the kind of political goodwill that would facilitate broader US-Japan strategic dialogue.
Alas, both interim and long-term solutions to the Futenma problem will have to wait until Leon Panetta and his team are up and running inside the Pentagon. And even then it will likely take time for the issue to make it to Panetta’s desk.
Until then, the unstable status quo – Futenma’s continued operation – will likely remain, causing the US-Japan alliance to work with less-than-optimal efficiency and friendly willingness.