Supposedly, the United States and Japan long ago resolved the most contentious security issue dividing the two countries: American bases on Okinawa. Washington was to consolidate its forces and replace Futenma Air Station with an offshore heliport. But voters in the Okinawa town of Nago recently rejected the plan. With Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto promising to respect his citizens’ wishes, American deployments are again in doubt. The Nago vote is just the latest evidence that Japan’s outdated security dependence on the US no longer serves the interests of either nation. It is time for a civil divorce.
Washington and Tokyo updated their military cooperation agreement last fall. But, given the fine print, Japan’s professed willingness to cooperate beyond the defense of its own archipelago means little. Tokyo’s military will not fight or even enter a combat zone, and Japan’s logistics support excludes weapons and ammunition. Moreover, the Japanese government is cutting defense outlays, as well as host-nation support for the US.
The purpose of the existing security relationship has disappeared. In 1945, Washington was concerned about containing communism after the collapse of wartime Japan. Five decades later, communism has collapsed, while Japan has become an economic powerhouse. Yet, the US continues to bear a disproportionate defense burden, devoting roughly 4 percent of gross domestic product to its military, quadruple Japan’s level.
Equally important, Americans remain at risk in order to guard Japan’s national interests with little or no assistance from Tokyo. This was illustrated by Japan’s tepid support for Washington’s policies toward North Korea and China. Tokyo also has unambiguously stated its opinion of potential conflicts elsewhere in the region - they are America’s problems. This relationship is hardly a serious partnership, let alone a military alliance worth the $20 billion or so it costs the US.
Although Washington has promised to maintain 100,000 troops in East Asia forever, or nearly so, the rationale for that presence has disappeared.
Although Japan benefits from this subsidy, it also suffers. The presence of thousands of primarily young males and the activities that inevitably accompany military bases fall heavily on local residents.
Despite promises by Tokyo and Washington, little has been done to reduce the unfair burden on Okinawa. The proposed heliport offers only a minimal improvement, and no other region in Japan seems likely to accept the “adequate replacement facilities” that Washington has demanded as the price of moving its forces. Unfortunately, America’s role in Okinawa has long been discreditable. After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the US asserted de facto sovereignty over the island (which was returned to Japan only in 1972) and seized land from local landowners.
Washington’s military protectorate imposes other costs on Japan. Especially offensive is the lack of international confidence. Many US officials privately agree with Maj. Gen. Henry Stackpole, who stated that America is “the cap in the bottle” preventing “a rearmed, resurgent Japan.” In time, the Japanese people likely will tire of paying for their foreign watchdog, especially when US policies could embroil their nation in war.
For instance, should the US use its bases to strike at China in a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing would not likely draw fine distinctions between Japanese and American installations when retaliating. It is for this reason that Liberal Democratic Party leaders have squabbled over whether the US-Japan alliance should cover Taiwan. These sorts of differences are likely to widen as the cold war further recedes.
Although Washington has promised to maintain 100,000 troops in East Asia forever, or nearly so, the rationale for that presence has disappeared. Japan faces no serious threats and has no incentive to launch another aggressive war; South Korea can protect itself; China’s defense buildup remains years away from endangering Japan; and Russia’s Pacific military forces are in shambles.
“We cannot be a superpower, we cannot have global reach without allies,” Defense Secretary William Cohen said last year in Japan. But military alliances should have a purpose. The alliance with Tokyo costs the US far more than it provides in benefits. America should scale back its disproportionate presence in Okinawa, followed by a general withdrawal of US forces from Japan, and cancellation of the so-called mutual defense treaty. Washington could then turn its position of unhealthy dominance into a truly equal partnership, benefiting both nations.