Last updated on June 1, 2022
The recent invasion launched by Russia in Ukraine refocused the international community’s attention from China and North Korea to the threat posed by Russia on the security of the Indo-Pacific region. While the US and Japan have had a longstanding security alliance to bring peace to the region, the relationship between the two countries has not always been stable. Over time, the US military presence in Japan has come to symbolize the strength of the Japanese-American Security Alliance (JASA), which plays a critical role in the Japanese and U.S. commitment to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. However, thorny issues such as the location of bases and cost-sharing have resulted in ongoing negotiations between the US and Japan to ensure their alliance continues to benefit both countries as well as promote safety in the region.
The alliance was formed after the US military occupation of Japan ended in 1951 in which the United States agreed to defend Japan against foreign attacks in exchange for permission to continue operating US military bases in Japan. JASA policies and agreements have evolved with changing political and economic forces in the region, as have US and Japanese sentiment regarding the alliance. However, one intractable issue that continues to plague the two nations is the question of whether or not to relocate a large number of US marines from a base located in the populated region of Okinawa Prefecture to a more remote, coastal area in Okinawa.
The conflict stems from the fact that the citizens of a small island in Japan bear an outsized burden of an agreement made between two nations. The small island of Okinawa accounts for less than 1% of Japan’s landmass, yet it hosts two-thirds of the US military bases in Japan. Chief among those bases is the Futenma US Marine Corps base which is located in a highly-populated area with schools and civilian neighborhoods. Despite the fact that the base has provided local jobs and spurred on the local economy, Okinawa citizens, for the most part, do not favor the presence of the Futenma base because they believe it has resulted in constant noise and air pollution as well as an increased crime against Okinawan residents. US Marines conduct constant training exercises with low-flying planes over schools and churches which result in persistent interruptions and a record of accidents, even deaths. Civilians complain of increased crimes and violence caused by US marines including rowdy bar fights between marines and local residents after having had too much to drink and related violent assaults. Perhaps most infamous was the rape and assault of a 12-year-old civilian by a group of US marines in 1996. Three years of international controversy followed this highly publicized incident, and in 1996, the US government and Japan agreed to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station from Futenma to a less populated area on the coast called Henoko. A political battle ensued between Okinawans and national politicians as to whether re-location was an acceptable solution and the matter is now being reviewed by the Court.
As conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region continue to escalate and tensions rise, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine will likely impact Japan’s involvement and support of US military bases. In fact, the most recent Japanese National Security Policy announced a month ago in April reflects changes made in response to this incursion. There are a few notable implications of the new policy. First, it emphasizes Japan’s commitment to “uphold, maintain, and protect the international order based on universal values and rules.” This implies that Japan will now be taking a more firm stance in calling out China. Second, the policy places greater importance on the strengthening of the Japan-US security relationship. As threats from China, Russia, and North Korea loom large, Japan has invested more heavily in maintaining favorability with the US defense forces.
The JASA is arguably more aligned than at any point in history to maintain regional stability and work closely to fight for shared interests. However, it will take continued support and effort by both nations in order to be successful. A 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service estimates that Japan spends close to $2 million dollars annually to provide land, labor, and utilities for US marines who reside in Japan, while the US spends close to $2.5 million annually to operate the bases and provide housing. Still, the US benefits strategically by having a significant military presence based in Japan so that it can quickly fend off threats from China and North Korea. Due to changes in Japan’s constitution in 2015, which allowed Japan to defend its allies, Japan’s military has taken a larger role in cooperation with the US to defend against common threats–particularly from China and North Korea and new cyber technologies. In 2018, as part of a larger $240 billion dollar defense spending bill, Japan pledged to purchase advanced weapons from the US. Consequently, there is a growing view that the US-Japan alliance has become more balanced over time as Japan has boosted its military capabilities and integrated its defense efforts more closely with US marines.
JASA is clearly aligned on efforts to protect freedom of movement across airspace and sea, denuclearization, and protection against China, North Korea, and Russia. Despite the unresolved issues of where to locate US marine bases and cost-sharing by both countries, it’s clear that the partnership between US and Japan, formed in 1960, has become the backbone of Indo-Pacific regional and economic security.