U.S.-Japanese Tensions Flare

Plans for the Okinawa Marine Base have inflamed an already rocky relationship.

U.S. Marines in an MV-22 Osprey.U.S. Marine Corps plans to deploy the hybrid helicopter-plane MV-22 Osprey to the air station in Futenma, Okinawa, have cast a considerable shadow over the Japan-U.S. alliance in recent months.

At the center of the controversy is safety. Two recent accidents involved Ospreys this year, one in Morocco in April and the other in Florida in June. Despite a September 19 agreement between Tokyo and Washington that gave a green light for the flight, strong protests against Osprey deployment continue in Okinawa.

While it is tempting to treat the issue of Osprey deployment as a bilateral alliance-management challenge between the United States and Japan, one should keep in mind that Japan’s neighbors in East Asia—particularly those who have contested territorial claims vis-à-vis Japan—are also watching closely to see whether the issue creates fissures in the U.S.-Japan alliance.

It is easy to frame the challenges associated with Osprey deployment in Okinawa in a purely domestic context, treating it as a base-management issue between the Japanese central government in Tokyo and the Okinawa prefectural government in Naha. After all, the primary concern about the Osprey—the one that has been articulated, anyway—is safety.

It is also important to recall that tensions over Okinawa stretch back several years. The derailment of the 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan (including the relocation of the Marine Corps air station Futenma in Okinawa) by the Hatoyama government between 2009–2010 aggravated the local opposition against Osprey deployment in Okinawa. Also, this week’s news of two U.S. sailors’ arrest for the alleged rape of a local Okinawan woman is a reminder that tensions over U.S. military presence have a human dimension.

Shoring up U.S.-Japan relations in the wake of recent events will require more attention to the considerable benefits of Osprey deployment—not only to Japan’s own security but also to the efforts to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The heart of the U.S. pivot toward the Asia-Pacific is a redistribution of its forces within the region, creating more balanced between Northeast and Southeast Asia. The ultimate fate of the regime in North Korea remains unpredictable, and the Asia-Pacific maritime domain is becoming a more contested space in the face of increasing Chinese assertiveness. Thus, a credible U.S. military presence as a demonstration of Washington’s commitments to the security of its allies and friends in the region will be critical to the future peace and stability of the region. A rotational yet formidable Marine presence is one of the most important means of assuring U.S. allies and friends of such an enduring commitment.

The high-speed, intraregional transport capability demonstrated by the Osprey is essential to this end. Ospreys deployed in Okinawa will enable Marines to respond to a diverse set of emergencies in the Asia-Pacific region. From humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to supporting U.S. allies defending territory in the initial phase of an armed conflict, Ospreys will allow Marines to move personnel and assets much more quickly within the region. In peacetime, they will help Marines to engage in various capacity-building efforts. In short, Osprey is critical to sustaining the perception within the Asia-Pacific region that United States remains steadfastly committed to providing peace and stability. Such a tangible demonstration not only reassures U.S. friends and allies in the region—it also discourages potential adversaries from taking action.

In the short term, Futenma is the only place that can be home to Ospreys. However, the successful relocation of the air station to its replacement facilities in Henoko off of Camp Schwab is essential if the United States will continue to operate Ospreys out of Okinawa for the long term. The relocation of the air station at Futenma, while being addressed bilaterally between the United States and Japan, will have a tremendous impact on the broader security environment in the Asia-Pacific region. Following the June 2012 bilateral agreement, responsibility for completing the Futenma relocation process is now squarely on the shoulders of Japanese government. Leaders in Tokyo must be mindful of the strategic imperative: their Futenma relocation efforts must succeed.

Yuki Tatsumi is a senior associate at the East Asia Program of the Stimson Center.