This week’s announcement about transferring 8000 U.S. Marines out of the Futenma U.S. Marine base on Okinawa brought this controversy to a reboil. For careful observers, however, the unexpected U.S. move is the clearest sign yet that we are entering a new strategic era in North Asia.
To say that Northeast and East Asia—Japan, China, the Koreas, and Russia, with the U.S. as the non-regional but fully engaged player—is in strategic military and political transition may be to state the obvious. Discerning where change is leading is difficult, though, not least because of the credulousness with which all the players—and particularly the U.S.—and endeavoring to hide some new strategic thinking and plans.
The mostly inexorable forces driving a rebalancing of strategic power and political relations are plain to see. We can list them in rough order of importance, as follows:
- China’s hugely increased and increasing economic and political influence–most importantly in the Asian region–and Beijing’s natural and inevitable determination to use this influence to advance its interests.
- China’s economy as the indispensable strategic market and engine of growth now and in future for the whole Asian region, not least for Japan.
- Japan’s seemingly mirror-image diminished and diminishing economic and political influence, with a stagnating domestic market, and severe absolute and relative demographic decline (government forecasts showing the population to decline by over 30 percent by 2050, the percent of old age dependents increasing to 40 percent, and the active workforce declining by half).
- Severe and deepening fiscal crises in both Japan and the U.S. requiring real reductions in bloated and profligate military establishments. For the U.S., demand not just for a “rebalancing” but also for “rightsizing” of global air, sea, and land forces against real enemies and threats, as opposed to continuing budgetary largess toward vested status quo bureaucratic and military-industrial interests.
- Increasing economic and political strength of South Korea and probable implosion of the impoverished North.
- Continued and growing Chinese military budgets. Continued development and deployment of strategic offensive and defensive weapons, particularly naval, ballistic, space and cyber forces.
If these are the clearly visible forces at in North Asia, what about the strategic assessments and plans of the countries involved? I would suggest the following:
- China plans to continue not just to assert but also to enforce through energy exploration and extraction its claims to disputed areas in the East China and South China Seas. It will increasingly build capacity to defend sea lanes transporting energy from the Gulf and Middle East.
- Although the U.S. intends to continue to wastefully and counter-productively maintain massive strategic air force and naval resources in the East Asia region (with Guam as the key air platform), as an putative “check” on Chinese aggrandizement–but actually more as tribute to domestic vested interests–in fact the U.S. has already accepted and plans to increasingly accommodate the reality of Chinese power and sovereignty in the region. Not wishing to alarm Japan, the Philippines, and others, the U.S. plans are to publicly acknowledge and announce such acceptance and accommodation over time, while continuing to pay lip service to historic “mutual” defense commitments.
- Japan is increasingly appreciating its position and destiny–economically, politically, and even socially and demographically–as being one with Asia, and particularly with China. As economic and trade relationships in Asia, and particularly in China, are deepening for Japanese companies, so is a sense of common purpose and future.
- To soften its demographic hard landing, Japan will allow some net immigration, with the immigrants overwhelmingly Chinese and Taiwanese, further deepening ties in the region.
All this is the strategic context within which in the past week the U.S. and Japan announced a change in the 2006 “road map” for Futenma U.S. Marine air base in Okinawa. Futenma is situated in a heavily populated area, is detested by the residents. Its relocation–i.e., construction of a new base–to another part of Okinawa has been a huge controversy, as residents in the proposed new location are also opposed. The “road map” held out to Japan a U.S. commitment to permanently move 8000 Marines and their families to Guam and return of several small U.S. bases in Japan as an inducement to getting the government to actually approve the base relocation.
Upon taking power in 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan apparently surprised the U.S. by asking us to move the base out of Japan. A stunned DoD bureaucracy could only react with stonewalling and then by insisting that there is no alternative to the 2006 road map. Meanwhile, local opposition to the relocation plan continues.
In the past week the two governments announced a U.S. decision to “unbundle” the road map by going ahead with removal of the 8000 Marines before an agreement on base relocation. Very likely, the other road map “carrot” –return of several small bases–will also be conceded as a gesture of support to the Noda government.
What about Futenma? In truth, in the changing strategic context described above, this base can no longer be justified. It does not fit into Japan’s or the U.S.‘s changing strategic visions. To date, neither side has wanted to be the first to admit this reality. The departure of the Marines is action speaks more eloquently to this effect than words....