The United States is over-burdened militarily and effectively bankrupt financially, but Washington is determined to preserve every base and deployment, no matter how archaic. Case in point: the many military facilities in Okinawa. No wonder the Okinawan people again voted against being conscripted as one of Washington’s most important military hubs.
The United States held on to the island after World War II, finally returning the territory to Japan in 1972. Even now, the Pentagon controls roughly one-fifth of the land.
Opposition to the overpowering American presence crystalized nearly two decades ago after the rape of a teenage girl by U.S. military personnel. The bases remain because no one else in Japan wants to host American military forces.
After a decade of negotiation, Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to shift Futenma airbase to the less populated Henoko district of Nago city. Few Okinawans were satisfied.
Three years later, the Democratic Party of Japan took power and promised to address Okinawans’ concerns. But the Obama administration proved to be as intransigent as its predecessor, thwarting the efforts of then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.
Tokyo has since attempted to implement the relocation agreement, despite strong local opposition. However, earlier this month Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga defeated Kirokazu Nakaima on an anti-base platform.
Onaga’s victory demonstrates the depth of popular feeling. Nakaima had flip-flopped in favor of the relocation plan in return for $2.6 billion in economic aid from Tokyo and enjoyed strong support from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Onaga campaigned against Tokyo’s attempt to buy off islanders and won handily.
The Abe government promised to move forward with its relocation plan, but faces early elections on December 14. Although the Liberal Democrats are expected to win, they likely will possess a smaller majority and will have a correspondingly harder time overriding local opinion against the bases.
“Okinawa has suffered a lot. Why do we have to suffer more?” Onaga asked before his election. There’s no good answer.
Nakaima cited Tokyo’s confrontation with China. Other advocates of America’s base presence pointed to North Korea. The Marine Corps highlighted all of the nearby places where the Marine Expeditionary Force could be quickly deployed.
But Washington should not be plotting new wars. The United States should leave day-to-day defense responsibilities to friendly Asian states, most notably Japan, and pull its forces back to America. Seven decades after the end of World War II, there’s no need for permanent U.S. garrisons in the region.
Devoting only one percent of its GDP to defense has allowed Tokyo to create a potent “Self-Defense Force.” Spending more would enable Japan to build a military well able to deter Chinese adventurism. South Korea needs no help in confronting the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, and other countries have been boosting their military outlays in response to increasing Chinese assertiveness. India is expanding its involvement in Southeast Asia, acting as another counter to Beijing.
As I point out in Forbes online: “Pulling U.S. forces back from Japan—there’s no reason to stop with the units deployed in Okinawa—would shift the basic responsibility for that country’s defense to Tokyo. Japanese citizens then could decide how to fill the gap. It’s not America’s place to tell its friends how much they should spend on what.”
A genuine “rebalancing” by America, not the fake transformation heralded by the Obama administration, almost certainly would impel Tokyo to do more, though exactly what would be a matter of debate. Such a shift would place greater pressure on Japanese officials to forge better relations with their neighbors, starting with South Korea.
Of course, the Japanese people could decide to do nothing, which would be their right. But the consequences of making that choice would be their own as well.
Washington’s defense commitments and force deployments should be adapted to circumstances. After nearly 70 years, Okinawans deserve relief. So do Americans, who pay to defend most of the globe.