A great sigh of relief erupted in Washington and Tokyo Friday when Prime Minister Naoto Kan reaffirmed his commitment to the United States-Japan security alliance. In particular, defense officials focused on Mr. Kan's promise to stick with a 2006 agreement with the U.S. to move a Marine air wing from one part of Okinawa Island to another. But even so, there remain fissures in the U.S.-Japan relationship that could erupt into further crises for the alliance.
Senior Japanese military officials I've recently interviewed believe former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama set back Tokyo's relations with its own citizens in Okinawa by at least a decade by waffling on the 2006 deal, and that the opposition to U.S. bases in Japan, emboldened by the former prime minister's position, could endanger much broader bilateral military relations between the two countries. This bigger story has received almost no attention in domestic or foreign press, but needs to be understood by those dismissive of the recent spat's importance.
The 2006 agreement to move the Marine air wing at Futenma to Camp Schwab in the northern part of the island, and 8,000 Marines to Guam from Okinawa, was just one part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces in Japan. In the view of senior Japanese military leadership, however, the actual centerpiece of the 2006 agreement is the expansion of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni, located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the west of Japan's main island, Honshu.
MCAS Iwakuni already hosts several Marine air squadrons, including the only American F/A-18 Hornet squadron permanently based abroad. Under the 2006 agreement, the USS George Washington's fighters, which comprise the navy's only permanently forward-deployed air wing, will relocate to Iwakuni by 2014 from the more congested Naval Air Facility Atsugi, located close to Tokyo. In addition, a squadron of Marine Corps KC-130 tankers will also vacate Futenma for Iwakuni. In their stead, a squadron of Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces surveillance planes, P-3s, will leave Iwakuni for Atsugi.
All this might sound confusing, but the planned realignment will in essence reduce the chances of catastrophic accidents happening in heavily populated areas at both Futenma and Atsugi, and will build up the less-populated Iwakuni base.
Here's the rub: The U.S. Department of Defense has made it clear that, unless the entire 2006 realignment plan goes forward, no individual pieces will be set in motion. And it all depends on moving the Marine helicopters out of Futenma, which has long been a source of political contention between Tokyo and Washington. The Japanese government, moreover, is committed to moving its surveillance planes to Atsugi, but that move probably won't happen if the American carrier air wing stays put.
Japanese military officials worry that this year's protests in Okinawa could have spillover effects, inspiring protesters around Atsugi to demand a reduced American presence, and possibly even agitating against the government plan to move Japanese planes there. Moreover, Iwakuni's mayor might reject the new burden of potentially hosting the George Washington's air wing. That, in turn, would embolden antinuclear protesters in Yokosuka, the U.S. Navy's main base, to step up their ongoing pressure to move the nuclear-powered George Washington, the Navy's only permanently forward deployed aircraft carrier, out of Japanese waters.
This worst-case scenario would be a series of simultaneous, grassroots movements against the U.S. military presence in Japan that could potentially put fatal stress on the bilateral security alliance and effectively isolate Japan militarily in the western Pacific. Given Mr. Hatoyama's fate when he botched this issue, politicians now are more likely to respond to public demands or they will be replaced by those who do. The resulting political clash would either reaffirm tight ties with Washington or lead to endemic paralysis in Japan's national security establishment.
Given that the U.S. has permanently forward deployed ships and planes only in Japan, any scenario like the one sketched out above could significantly weaken U.S. capability to operate in the western Pacific, and thus call into question U.S. credibility as the underwriter of regional stability at a time when a crisis is brewing on the Korean peninsula and China continues to flex its naval and air muscle. Anyone concerned about that scenario, even if unlikely, realizes that the next half-decade of U.S.-Japan relations will have to go back to basics: rebuilding trust in the relationship, agreeing on a common set of objectives in Japan's waters and throughout Northeast Asia, and strengthening a commitment to upholding the alliance's military capabilities. The good news is that Japan's bureaucrats and military leaders remain more committed than ever to revitalizing the alliance. Whether politicians on both sides of the Pacific are willing to follow them, however, is another matter.
No one believes that Washington and Tokyo are about to end their half-century-old alliance over an airstrip on an island in the middle of the ocean. But no one imagined, either, that a carefully crafted, decade-long negotiating process would be so carelessly upended by short-term political calculations. Prime Minister Kan can't afford to ignore the fissures opened by his predecessor and should work to heal them.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.