Thursday, December 17, 2009

Futenma goes pandemic

It started like a niggling itch in the throat, one initially ignored as just a minor irritant. Then it became a bit sore---nothing to worry about, but enough to make one suspect that something was not quite right. Later it got to the point where it was obvious that there was a problem. Then came the diagnosis---H1futeNma1---which would either result in a period of light discomfort or would end it all.

It seems that the subject of Futenma has become something that cannot be avoided.

It is easy for many of us with personal interests in Japan (and the success of the DPJ) to cast the US as the bullying heavy in this little spat. However, I am fortunate enough to have gotten my hands on a copy of the Nelson Report. Contained within were the key points of a paper, US Should Stand Firm on Implementation of Okinawa Force Realignment, by Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Mr Klingner wrote of the strategic concerns of the US government.

My (too) brief summary of those key points:

The major provisions agreed to are 1) the redeployment of USMC air units from Futenma to a less populated area near Camp Schwab; 2) A reduction of a total of 17000 Marines and their dependents to Guam and Japan paying 60% of the $10 billion price tag for the move; 3) The consolidation of the remaining Marine units into less-populated areas of Okinawa and the return of a number of US bases to Okinawan control.

The provisions of the 13-years-in-the-making-agreement are interconnected and one part cannot be changed without threatening the whole agreement.

Since the Marines (unlike the other services) operate in combined-arms units, the removal of any of these units from Okinawa would have a very negative effect on its (Marines) rapid response capabilities. In short, one cannot willy-nilly move a highly integrated component without affecting the whole.

Relocating the Futenma unit to Guam would also mean that the plan to build two new runways at Camp Schwab to replace the one lost at Futenma would be scrapped, eliminating a "strategic [Japanese] national security asset" negatively affecting the augmentation of US or Japanese security forces during a crisis. The distance form Guam to Okinawa would cause a further in force capabilities. "The DPJ advocacy for removing Marine helicopter units from Okinawa...but still expecting the same level of protection, which is impossible given the tyranny of the distance."

A point which is often forgotten in this debate is that the US is obligated under the security treaty not only to defend Japan, but that it also gives the US broader regional responsibilities. In bilateral agreements from 2005 other objectives beyond the defense of Japan were "affirmed."

He ends with the concern that further delays will be more likely to turn public opinion against the US presence and by leaving the Futenma Marines in their current location during the delay risks another military-related incident.

One can argue that whether or not the US should even have forces in Japan (or in nearly every other corner of the world), but that is not what this dispute is about. There is, however, a fear that a delay will "inflame" the left to "expand the debate to a more comprehensive reassessment of the US-Japan alliance." That is perhaps long overdue, but it's doubtful that either government wants that now or in the near future---if ever.

And that is the main problem in my opinion. The government and the populace want to continue to have the US provide a military for Japan sixty-five years after the end of WW2. The whole set-up is one that cannot last forever.

1606: Edited because neither I nor Blogger spellcheck can spell.

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