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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (June 4, 2003)

US Troop Restructuring and Japan

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)

This article originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on June 2, 2003; posted here with the author's permission.


Japanese officials stood trembling this past week when they received word of a Los Angeles Times article that reported a Department of Defense decision to move 15,000 of the 20,000 US marines in Okinawa out of Japan (29 May). This claim was backed up by an inquiry made by the Okinawa prefecture government which inquired about the matter with the US State Department and received a comment indicating that a "realignment in the deployment of US forces world wide was under review, and included the possibility of US marines being pulled out of Okinawa" (Yomiuri Shimbun, 1 June).

Within a matter of hours the US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, the US ambassador to Japan, Howard Baker, and Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, denied any such possibility. Commenting from Singapore, Wolfowitz stated that the report was "simply wrong" and claimed that many of the basing and mobility issues confronting the US in other nations "do not exist" in relation to Japan (speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore, 31 May). Howard Baker responded to the Japanese press on 1 June stating that although realignment in Okinawa had been talked about "as an example" between Koizumi and Bush in Texas (23 May), he confirmed that there would be "no troop pullout" in Japan as of yet (Yomiuri).

However, considering Donald Rumsfeld's mission to modernize the armed forces and contempt for its current deployment structure, to which he refers to as a "Cold War relic", it is hard to imagine that reductions will be limited to Europe and South Korea, leaving Japan as it is. Any preliminary review of US strategic planning on the issue gives credibility to the notion that the number of US troops in Japan will be reduced significantly within the next ten years.

The main drivers of the US armed force's posture review are: technology; the increasingly unpredictable nature of threats (most importantly WMD in the hands of "rogue" states and "terrorism"); and a shortage of well trained soldiers. With the emergence of reliable long-range, "high precision" and mobile systems, the US no longer needs an extensive forward deployment. Secondly, in an environment of increasingly unpredictable, unidentifiable and destructive threats, static and obvious targets such as bases are precisely what the US government would like to avoid. Thirdly, as was pointed out by Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Chairman of the Senate Military Construction Sub-committee) in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, the barrage of restrictions placed on US bases overseas has made it difficult for US troops to train under "realistic conditions", thereby hindering their reliability in cases of war. According to her, this explains why the majority of the US troops on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan were trained on US soil. She maintains that the "Cold War concept of training overseas is obsolete" (speech 8 April). In addition to being concerned about the quality of their soldiers, the US military is worried about the (wo)man-power shortage it is currently facing. Army experts claim that with two-thirds of army special forces spread over eighty-five countries there simply aren't enough people to do the job.

In a way, Paul Wolfowitz admits that restructuring will have to take place in East Asia when he states that, "the Pacific region today is truly peaceful for one of the first times in its history. In the defense area, the issue for my country, is how to best sustain the American commitment to this region in the face of global demands on our defense resources". Considering that Japan pays 80% of the costs for stationing US troops (as compared to 21% for Germany, 37% for Italy and 41% for Korea), reductions in Japan may come later than the rest. However, regardless of whether or not the US intends to withdraw 15,000 of its 20,000 marines from Japan, the analysis above makes it clear that there will be significant changes in the US force structure in Japan within the next decade. The question that Japan will have to deal with from here on in regards how it should respond in order to increase regional "stability". This is the question that I would like to present to members of the forum. According to Chalmers Johnson, the simple withdrawal of the "provocative" US military presence Asia will serve that purpose (The Nation, 26 April 2000).

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