28 April 2006

Downsizing Okinawa

The United States will move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam by 2012 . . . . The move is part of a broader Alliance Transformation Realignment agreement between the U.S. and Japan. . . . finalized April 23, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Japanese Minister of State for Defense Fukushiro Nukaga met at the Pentagon to work out cost-sharing particulars[.]

This isn't the only downsizing of a foreign military base the U.S. Department of Defense has undertaken, but it is being done for very different reasons than the major drawdown of troops in Western Europe, and in particular, in Germany. Those troops are being reallocated for strategic reasons. Nobody anticipates a scenario of hostile tanks streaming across the middle of what was once the West German-East German border any more, and the bases have been reduced to a combination of an exotic version of garrison posts in the places like Colorado Springs, and a major military hospital complex convenient to more active areas of conflict in the Middle East.

In contrast, Okinawa remains the most important front line base for the Navy, Marines and Air Force in the event of any conflict with China and North Korea, two nations whose potential threat is the single greatest driver of the current U.S. Navy's structure and is a major component of U.S. Air Force threat planning. No U.S. military base is closer to Taiwan.

The move of U.S. Marines to Guam reflects the fact that Japan is not really comfortable with having so many U.S. forces on its soil.

Richard Lawless, deputy undersecretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters at the Pentagon. "The idea is to resolve, in one fell swoop, all or almost all of the long-standing issues that have inhibited the alliance going forward.

"It's a very important part, but it's just one part of something that is much, much larger in the relationship between ourselves and the government of Japan," he continued. . . . The realignment limits the burden of the Japanese people but still allows the U.S. to maintain credibility and deterrence in the region. "That's the balance we've struck with this particular arrangement," he said.

Realistically, if troops must move to remove the discomfort that the Japanese feel about the base, the Marines were the right choice. Operationally, the reduced distance to the Taiwan straight is more important to aircraft and warships deploying to confront a Chinese flotilla, than it is for Marines, who, in the tense runup to a shooting war could be put on the ships that they would deploy on and kept afloat closer to the action in any case. And, while it is always hazardous to stereotype, the Marines are much younger on average than their Air Force and Navy counterparts, tend to be more patriotically gung ho, are more likely to bring dependents with them than Navy forces afloat, and in short have more of a potentially tense impact on their Okinawan neighbors. Many do the cultural interface side of their job admirably, but, there are incidents involving Marines and the locals from time to time, and one can imagine that the Japanese appreciate their departure.

Notably, parallel activity is taking place in South Korea, one of the largest foreign bases for the U.S. Army in the world, and the other major U.S. military presence in the region. A significant number of U.S. Army soldiers will be shifted from the border region with North Korea, to Southern South Korea. Strategically, the justification is that a successful North Korean invasion might quickly overrun the border area and someone has to be a backstop to prevent such a sweep from overtaking the country and organize a responsive strike. But, politically, the move will take U.S. troops away from South Korea's urban epicenter around Seoul, into South Korea's provincial hinterlands, in part in responsive to widespread public protests over a number of incidents where U.S. soldiers were perceived as having been given favorable treatment in a fatal traffic accident and other incidents over the years.

"Town-Gown interactions" aren't just minor matters at a foreign military base. They drive the big picture of the military side of American foreign policy, because that is what host country politicians care about when war isn't imminent.

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