The US and Japan have achieved another milestone in the evolution of their security treaty by agreeing on Friday to a plan to relocate the Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma in South central Okinawa to an existing base about 40 km north east of its current location, at Henoko-zaki, on the East coast. This move is a component part of a 2006 US-Japan agreement to realign US forces in Japan, including a move of 8,000 Marines to Guam, which in turn is a sub-set of a broad US restructuring of its forces in the Pacific. Okinawa hosts half of US forces in Japan. This has focused on the islanders the kinds of problems associated with military bases everywhere: noise pollution, danger – a helicopter crashed in a school yard in a few years ago – and the kinds of risks associated with having thousands of adrenalin-pumped young men in the neighborhood and with free time on their hands.
This most recent agreement has not been easy to achieve. Japanese politicians have to operate in the space between the largely undisputed need for maintaining the security alliance with the United States, and the reality that the Japanese people want to host fewer American troops on their soil. The patience of many Okinawans in particular has reached its limits. While they welcome the reduction in the overall US foot print on their island which this agreement will facilitate – 8,000 Marines are to be relocated to Guam – the residents of Henoko recently voted for an anti-base mayor who said, after Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Foreign Minister Okada announced the agreement, repeated that he would continue to oppose the move. Small scale but media-genic opposition can be expected to continue, especially when the engineering work begins. The new facilities and landing strip are to completed by 2014, but a great deal of anti-base activity can be expected between now and then.
Japan’s comfort level with its alliance with the United States has always ranged from acceptance of the inevitable to outright opposition, and this has been the case since the American occupation which began in August 1945, very shortly after the Japanese surrender.
Japan had never been occupied before the arrival of the Americans at the end of WWII. The adjustment to the security relationship with the US following the San Francisco Treaty of 1952, which returned to Japan its sovereignty and independence, has been an ongoing process, driven by geopolitics as well as the type of local considerations that have made the Funtenma decision both drawn-out and difficult for both sides.
Sometimes these adjustments have been relatively easy, such as the post-Cold War Joint Declaration on Security, by which Japan took on additional Alliance burdens. Sometimes however they have been much more contentious, such as the Treaty Revision of 1960, which was accompanied by much street violence and the cancellation of President Eisenhower’s visit to Japan, as was the Okinawa reversion of 1972.
Most Japanese believe that they need the alliance as much today as much as they did during the Cold War. There is much geopolitical transformation in Asia. China’s economic rise is accompanied by an increase in military spending and attendant capability. Issues such as China-Taiwan political relations and economic integration, the protection of the regional sea lanes, the American geopolitical role in Asia, are being reshaped in tandem with the development of Chinese capabilities and the lack of transparency over its ultimate aims and strategy.
North Korea can be counted on to raise tensions when it suits its opaque purposes. The timing of the DPRK attack against the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan is particularly strange. Among other things, the attack served to strengthen the resolve of the Hatoyama Government to conclude the Futenma decision, despite opposition within its own coalition, given the perception among the broad general public that the North Korean Government is basically irrational and Japan needs, at all times, the strategic protection of the United States.
Japan’s own military capacity, although considerable, has developed within a series of constitutional and budgetary constraints. Japan’s fiscal situation is such that the limits on military expenditures, first established to achieve economic recovery and development in the 1950s, will have to be maintained or even reduced, for an entirely different set of reasons. Dependence on the US alliance will be a fact of life for a long time to come.
Canada is not part of this debate, but we cannot be indifferent to its ramifications. We have a number of economic life-lines – to the US and Mexico, across the Atlantic and now trans-Pacific as well. Somebody has to assure maritime stability and the security of the sea lanes. The US has done so for decades. Madeleine Albright used to say that the US provided the regional security oxygen. China may do so in the future, but a lot of jostling has to take place between now and then between the maritime powers, the US and China in particular, but also Japan and Korea, for a new disposition to develop. This process will likely consume much of the decade.
At this point in history, Canada benefits significantly from a peaceful West Pacific environment, even as our contribution to it is limited. We should welcome arrangements that keep the US role in place for the time being, including within the US-Japan alliance.
But we will also have to accept, over time, an increasing role for China. Maybe it’s time for the Government of Canada to discuss these matters with them.