Further Comment on 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 4, 2003; posted here with the author's permission.
Whether Japan likes it or not it is a foregone conclusion that the US/Pentagon will restructure its forces in East Asia including Okinawa. Wolfowitz has already stated (June 4, Asahi) that "Washington and Tokyo are reviewing the deployment of US Marines in Okinawa" and that the "reviews are part of efforts to reduce the military burden on Okinawa".
In his recent intervention regarding US force realignments in Asia, James Schoff (http://www.glocom.org/debates/20030604_schoff_com/) makes an important point when stating the following: "Some reduction in US troops stationed overseas in Japan or South Korea is not by itself an indication of declining strategic relevance"... and concludes by stating that, "I would argue that the strategic relevance between Washington and Tokyo is on an upswing".
Whether the strategic relevance of Japan is on the increase or not is hard to say at this point. However, one observation that is relatively clear is that the nature of the US-Japan alliance is changing dramatically. In fact, the US seems to be moving away from its dependence on "alliance structures" towards a more flexible and advantageous (for the US) "voluntary coalition" system, as has been demonstrated in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq. The new force structure that the Pentagon is putting forward is thus not only tied to the reasons stated in an earlier NBR posting of mine: (1) the changing nature/perception of the greatest threat to US security (WMD in the hands of rogue states and terrorism); (2) technological advances in weaponry (emergence of reliable long-range, high precision and mobile systems); (3) a shortage of well trained soldiers, but also to the Pentagon's preferred force deployment structure for the 21 century.
Japan's strategic value will thus depend on whether Japan is willing to join these "voluntary coalitions" or not, to what extent it will contribute, and in what manner. This goes to substantiate what Mr. Schoff stated later on that, "Japan is becoming a more important partner for the US in strategic/military issues because of what it is willing and able to do, (e.g. naval refueling for the campaign in Afghanistan, dispatch of Aegis destroyers, mid-air refueling exercises in Alaska, stepping up cooperation toward possible deployment of missile defense systems, etc.)"
When it comes to far off lands such as the Middle East, Japan has few problems going along with the US and joining these "voluntary coalitions". However, when we are talking about matters closer to home, Japan may not be so willing, thereby diminishing its strategic value for the US. The US is clearly decreasing its "human" commitment to Japanese and S. Korean security. It plans to replace the human component with technology such as the missile defense system. Recently, the US signed a 3 year $11bn agreement with S. Korea aimed at enhancing S. Korea's defensive capability. This will place 150 systems on the peninsula.
Politicians/bureaucrats may argue that replacing soldiers with technology does not imply a reduction in commitment, however, it is evident that US strategic priorities have shifted away from alliance structures that imply a US military presence towards a more flexible and mobile deployment structure that can deal with the "terrorist and WMD threat", respond to pre-emption, take advantage of US weapons technology and support its military industrial complex. US priorities have clearly shifted and it is up to Japan to decide whether it wants to go along with this new US strategic doctrine.
In this sense, militarily speaking, Japan's strategic relevance for the US may be up today and down tomorrow. This could have dramatic consequences further fueling the arms race in East Asia (already the # 1 arms importing region in the world) thereby increasing mistrust, tension and insecurity all over again.