Will the U.S. military withdraw from Japan?

Features - July 16th, 2004

by Jim Dougherty

The Bush Administration has confirmed a plan to cut military forces stationed in South Korea and Germany. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to re-deploy these troops to facilities located along what some military strategists refer to as “lily pads” — small, flexible military operating locations, stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa.

Rumsfeld’s planned redeployments are part of a global strategy to build a “capability to impose lethal power, where needed, when needed, with the greatest flexibility and with the greatest agility.”

To most military analysts, these redeployments make a lot of sense. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need for large military bases that accommo­date conventional fighting forces in Germany, Japan, Korea and elsewhere are no longer practical from a strategic point of view.

Pentagon officials confirm the transfer of 12,500 U.S. troops from South Korea, although these num­bers might be revised at a later date. In Germany, up to 35,000 U.S. troops will begin leaving next year.

More than one-third of the 47,000 U.S. personnel in Japan are stationed on Okinawa. According to Japanese government officials, the Pentagon is now considering the transfer of U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Hokkaido. The Asahi Shimbun reported the move would involve about 14,000 Marines.

Among other changes speculated in the Japanese press are redeployment of U.S. Navy aircraft out of Atsugi and Air Force operations at Yokota. In my opinion, the proposal to move 14,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Hokkaido makes sense. U.S. troops in Hokkaido will be able to participate in live-fire exercises. Presently, they can’t do this on Okinawa, where building pressure to reduce the number of Marines has intensified.

Japan is also home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet (Yokosuka), including the only aircraft carrier based permanently outside the United States, and the 374th Airlift Wing (Yokota), the Air Force’s only air transport group in the Far East. In recent years, Japan has faced new threats from North Korea which has missiles capa­ble of reaching Japanese soil, as well as an active nuclear weapons program.

U.S. military presence in Japan began at the end of World War II. In 1951, Okinawa legally became a pos­session of the United States as the result of a Post-War International Treaty. Although the U.S. Occupation ended in 1952, the U.S. administrated Okinawa for another 20 years. Although the U.S. was not required to do so, in 1972 it reverted control of Okinawa back to Japan.

Currently, U.S. military bases and facilities on Okinawa occupy about 10 percent of the land mass. Since the end of World War II, U.S. forces have sup­ported major military operations from Japan, most importantly during the Korean War (1950-53). The United States again used its bases in Japan to fight the Vietnam War. And U.S. Forces were deployed from Japan to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm (in the early 1990s).

Recently Michael Powell, former deputy director of the Japan Desk at the Pentagon, gave a speech in New York explaining America’s shift in policy on Japan. Powell, the son of Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and current Secretary of State, argues the relationship is not stable because the respon­sibilities are not balanced.

The United States guarantees Japan’s defense, but Japan does little more than provide bases for U.S. troops. Powell claims Japan and the United States do not have a real alliance, since Washington cannot be assured of support from Japan in a global crisis.

In Powell’s words, “Japan one day will have to par­ticipate in the protection of its interests offshore or Japan will lose the support of other countries.”

The Japan-U.S. security agreement is not clear as to what specific role Japan will play in emergencies. While the United States considers Japan among its strongest and most reliable allies, the presence of thousands of American troops on Japanese soil is a source of contin­uing friction.