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Think tank claims Marine rotation proposal to benefit U.S. forces, Japan

By Nobuyuki Suzuki


The private sector think tank New Diplomacy Initiative (ND), whose members include Japanese and U.S. experts, has been in the limelight for issuing a recommendation last month on reviewing the operations of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa and relocating its troops out of the prefecture. The ND’s proposals, if implemented, would reduce Okinawa’s base-hosting burden, as well as impact the local residents’ persistent anti-bases movement. The recommendation claims to “benefit not only Japan and the United States, but also the local residents.”


The scope of the Marines’ operations was originally limited to disembarking from landing ships to fight on land. However, landing operations have become obsolete after World War II due to advancements in military tactics. The result is that the Marines are constantly targeted for downsizing whenever fiscal difficulties call for a cutback in the defense budget. In reality, the Marines make their presence felt through humanitarian aid and disaster relief to project a more positive image of the United States.


Moreover, the 18,000 Marines in Okinawa are slated for dispersion to Australia, Hawaii, and Guam under the U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) realignment plans. Only a 1,200-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit will remain in Okinawa in the end. Since this force also goes out to various locations in Asia-Pacific for humanitarian aid and other operations, its members are often not present in Okinawa.


Therefore, the ND’s recommendation proposes, “The bases in Okinawa should not be the starting point for rotations. Under a new rotation plan with starting points in the U.S. mainland, Australia, or Guam, it would be possible to reduce Okinawa’s base-hosting burden.” Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would also be able to participate in the Marines’ humanitarian aid operations and contribute to security in Asia.


Tomohiro Yara, a part-time lecturer at Okinawa International University who is one of the authors of the recommendation, asserts, “The U.S. military presence in Asia and the Pacific and the balance of power would remain unchanged even under the new rotation plan. There is no need for Marine bases in Okinawa in terms of military strategy.”


The new rotation proposal would benefit the U.S. forces. There is strong opposition to the construction of a new military base in Henoko, and stable operation of U.S. bases will be difficult without regard for the popular will.


Furthermore, the anti-base movement, currently focusing on the Marine facilities, may spread to the Kadena Air Base, which is currently relatively unaffected. Kadena is one of the overseas bases that are indispensable for the U.S. forces’ international strategy.


In addition, the concentration of bases in Okinawa constitutes military vulnerability. North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile experiments point to the fact that it is targeting U.S. bases in Japan. A high concentration of bases is susceptible to serial attacks by the enemy, and the rule of thumb in crisis management is risk dispersion.


However, the Marines are the most adamant opponents to withdrawal from Okinawa. There have long been proponents in the U.S. of the Marines’ withdrawal from Okinawa. However, George Washington University Prof. Mike Mochizuki, an ND board member, points out that withdrawal would lead to the Marines’ downsizing and losing Japan’s “sympathy budget.”


The ND’s recommendation deals with this issue. While it proposes the relocation of the Marine troops, the command function would not be affected. “Host nation support,” known as the “sympathy budget” in Japan, would become “host region support,” and Japan would continue to shoulder the expenses for humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and other operations. The recommendation also accounts for the need for high-speed transport ships under the new rotation plan.


The Japanese government would be able to reduce its expenses for the USFJ substantially under the recommendation.


The Defense Ministry’s USFJ-related allocations in FY15 totaled 520 billion yen. Adding the allocations from other ministries to local governments hosting U.S. bases brings the total to over 700 billion yen. Relocation of the Futenma Air Station to Henoko is estimated to cost 350 billion yen. This would no longer be necessary.


It has always been argued that the Marines’ withdrawal from Okinawa would “send out the wrong message to East Asia.” In the first place, the Marines’ top priority in a contingency is to evacuate U.S. citizens from the ROK and Taiwan. Japan has primary responsibility for the defense of the Senkaku Islands disputed between Japan and China. The Marines have not even conducted any on-site exercises there and have no plans to come to Japan’s rescue.


If the U.S. forces indeed provide deterrence against China’s maritime advances, it is obvious that this is being accomplished by the Kadena Air Base and the Yokosuka naval base (in Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture). (Abridged)

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