China will be unlikely to see the reassignment as a U.S. retreat. Kadena Air Base will still be the most strategic U.S. regional asset in the event of a conflict, and the United States can use its facilities on Okinawa to preposition equipment. The People’s Liberation Army should not be expecting to fight Marines any time soon; their absence from Okinawa will not change China’s strategic calculus. In fact, the Chinese could currently see the Marine presence as an advantage—the unpopularity of the bases and risk of accident are a liability in the U.S.-Japan alliance that endangers more important cooperation.
The United States can maintain a realistic warfighting capability in East Asia without permanently housing ten thousand Marines on Okinawa. Basing and deployment policies should derive from national interests we are actually willing to fight and die for; in East Asia, only three scenarios pose a sufficient threat U.S. interests to merit American lives. Yet ten thousand pre-deployed Marines will not be relevant in either a North Korean war, a fight over the Senkakus, or a battle for Taiwan. In the meantime, reassigning them elsewhere will strengthen the U.S.-Japan security partnership by removing a liability and abrogating a long-running conflict. America and its allies will be just as safe—or safer—without the Marines on Okinawa. Let’s bring them home.
Jarek Buss is a security policy writer based in Washington, DC.