Introduction: Japan’s return to Asia
The political impasse over implementing the planned relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa has dominated official US-Japan dialog in recent years. Although the impasse has not been resolved, the two sides took a major step forward earlier this year when the US agreed to delink Futenma relocation from its broader plans to realign its forces in the Pacific region and return a handful of other bases to Okinawa.
Western coverage of the joint statement focused on the news that the US would move 9,000 Marines out of Okinawa, with 4,700 deploying to Guam and the rest rotating between bases in Australia, Hawaii, and possibly the Philippines. However, this coverage overlooked an equally interesting new development with major implications for regional relations in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the weeks leading up to the 23 April 2+2 meeting, Japanese outlets began reporting that the two sides were considering the stationing of combined US and Japanese forces on US bases in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands for the purpose of conducting combined exercises. If realized, this would be a remarkable step for Japan. Although the nation’s Self Defense Forces (SDF) have participated in a variety of regional exercises in recent years, no Japanese forces have been permanently stationed on foreign soil in the Asia-Pacific region since the end of World War II.
In the wake of the ministerial meeting, the outlets quickly filled in the details of the potential move. They reported that the two nations would share the projected US$800 million cost of constructing the new facilities, and that the exercises between the Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF) and the US Marines would involve a hypothetical scenario in which the two allies fight to retake one of Japan’s Nansei (Southwest) Islands after its capture by a major regional power. Within the Northern Marianas, the islands of Tinian and Pagan were noted as the top candidates for the new facilities.
The Japanese outlets’ reporting was confirmed on 26 April with the release of the official Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee. Under the heading “New Initiatives to Promote Regional Peace, Stability, and Prosperity,” the document stated:
Although little noticed in the US, this paragraph set the stage for a major new Japanese security debate. Editorial reactions to the new proposal were swift and vigorous, breaking along traditional political lines.Asahi Shimbun, Chunichi Shimbun and Hokkaido Shimbun raised a variety of significant concerns, including the constitutionality of the new proposal, the potential for a backlash from China, and the question of whether the move was really in Japan’s national interest, as opposed to the US national interest. [For more on this reaction, see the recent Exovera analysis: “Japanese debate security cooperation with US to counter China.”]
The Philippines, too?
The day after the 2+2 meeting, Sankei Shimbun reported that the two sides were also considering another location for shared stationing and exercises: the Philippines. This was an unusual assertion, given that the US has no bases in the Philippines: the Philippine government expelled all US forces from its territory 20 years ago, shortly after the end of the Cold War, and the two sides are only now discussing the possibility of reinstating combined use of bases there as part of the broader US rotational deployment plan.
However, according to Sankei, the possibility of SDF deployment as part of the US rotational strategy was raised in the 2+2 discussions, with both sides noting that trilateral discussions with the Philippines would start after the completion of talks currently underway between the US and the Philippines. The daily pointed to the bases on Luzon and Palawan as candidate locations, and reported that the resulting military exercises would be trilateral.
The Japanese version of the Chinese news site ChinaNet quickly picked up Sankei’s article and ran with it. It asserted that Japan was obviously aiming to put pressure on China by inserting itself into China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea, and thereby hoping to claim ‘a fisherman’s profit’ with regard to the its own territorial disputes with China (a reference to an old Chinese proverb about a fisherman who observed a locked struggle between a snipe and a clam, and proceeded to catch both of them).
Furthermore, ChinaNet argued, “With a small territory and meager natural resources, Japan is somewhat sensitive and servile, but it also continues to want the international community to listen to its voice. Dispatching soldiers abroad is an effort to demonstrate its presence and clout.”
As more than one analyst has noted (see, for example, James Simpson’s response to his readers’ comments in a recent Japan Security Watch discussion of the article), Sankei Shimbun is not always the most reliable news source in Japan. Given that no other Japanese outlet picked up Sankei’s story, and no mention of the Philippines appeared in the official US-Japan joint statement, it is possible that thearticle was an example of Sankei’s penchant for somewhat speculative, rather than investigative, reporting. However, it is also possible that the joint statement’s failure to mention the Philippines was simply due to the preliminary nature of the trilateral discussions, and that the Philippines will surface again as a potential joint stationing site later this year.
In an exclusive interview with the Japanese edition of the Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Noda explained that the Japanese government’s consideration of the Guam and Mariana Islands joint stationing proposal “is not something undertaken with any particular nation or region in mind.” He failed to convince any major Japanese news outlets, which all agreed instead that, as Jiji Press put it, “the purpose of the joint exercises is to counter the Chinese military, which aims to advance towards the open sea of the western Pacific Ocean,” and to “strengthen the defense of the Nansei Islands.”
The outlets also gave additional reasons for exactly how the move would help the two allies counter the percieved threat from China. Asahi Shimbun quoted a senior official at the Japanese Defense Ministry as saying that "the new measure could make it possible to conduct practical war drills that would have been impossible in Japan." A Kyodo wire report picked up by the Japan Times noted that the exercises would help the two allies “strengthen their surveillance and reconnaissance activities.” And Sankei Shimbun reported that “by decentralizing the deployment of the SDF and US forces, [Japan and the US] aim to increase their ‘survivability’ – the ability to counterattack even after being hit by a first blow from China or the like.”
“Won’t China see this move by Japan and the US as an effort to encircle China?” asked Hokkaido Shimbun in its editorial response to the joint statement. Chunichi Shimbun agreed, warning the Japanese government that “great care is needed to ensure that this type of joint activity does not backfire and lead to higher military tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.”
These liberal outlets’ concerns are not without foundation. Chinese wariness of Japan’s military ambitions – an understandable reaction to the Japanese empire’s attempt to conquer China outright in the 1930’s – continues to be deep and strong to this day, not only among policymakers, but also within the Chinese population. A major joint public opinion survey conducted last year by the Japanese think tank Genron NPO clearly demonstrated this continuing unease. When it asked Chinese respondents to pick up to three political terms to describe Japan, the top reply was the comparatively benign "capitalist" (42.4%), but the next three were stronger: "militarist" (36.4%), "nationalist" (32.1%), and "hegemonic" (28.3%).
Against this backdrop of deep-seated distrust, China is very likely to be unhappy and distrustful of Japan’s motives in pursuing co-stationing and combined military exercises in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. It is conceivable that such a move could contribute to heightened military tensions in the region, as Hokkaido Shimbun warned. However, given the dramatic growth and provocative behavior of the Chinese military in recent years, it would be difficult to label any future military spending or provocation as a specific reaction to Japan’s move as opposed to an established and ongoing pattern.
Local and regional reaction: Guam, the Marianas, Philippines, ASEAN
Despite the concern of the more liberal Japanese newspapers about the potential Chinese reaction to the presence of Japanese forces in the Pacific, none of the Japanese outlets considered how locals in Guam and the Northern Marianas might react – not to mention the rest of Southeast Asia. Imperial Japan invaded the Northern Marianas during WWI, formally took control of them in 1919, used them as a base to invade Guam the day after Pearl Harbor, and did not relinquish control until the US won back both the Northern Marianas and Guam in the 1944 Battle of Saipan.
The semi-permanent presence of Japanese forces on these islands could easily revive longstanding fears of Japanese remilitarization, both within the islands themselves and throughout the rest of Southeast Asia. However, most of the nations in the region are now far more nervous about China’s military expansion than they are about a resurgent Japan. If Japan starts to be viewed as ally in countering the threat from China rather than a potential threat, that could go a long way towards overcoming lingering historical antipathy towards Japan. The economic boost that the new joint facilities would represent for the islands would also be significant, which explains why, as Jiji Press reported, “local mayors eager at the prospect of economic development have indicated that they will support the construction of the training facilities.”
An in-depth Jiji Press analysis of the new proposal noted that the 2+2 joint statement “strongly reflects the US wish to incorporate Japan into its strategy towards China.” The wire service described the Chinese strategic concepts of a “first island chain” connecting Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines and a “second island chain” including the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam (see map), and cited unnamed sources in the US Defense Department as explaining that as the Chinese Navy looks to move beyond the first chain to the second, one major US goal is to establish a significant presence of US forces and SDF members “on an island in the vicinity of China’s maritime defense line” as a deterrent.
Sankei Shimbun further noted that an active Japanese security role in the Asia-Pacific would fit well with the US imperatives of pivoting towards Asia while cutting its defense budget.
Gradual loosening of SDF restrictions
For the past sixty years, beginning almost immediately after US-led occupying forces left Japan with a strikingly pacifist Constitution that famously renounced both war and the maintenance of war potential, the US has pushed Japan to loosen those restrictions and participate more fully both in its own defense and in US-led operations around the world. For most of that time, Japan resisted just as strongly.
However, over the past two decades, as a new generation with no memory of the war has taken over from the wartime generation, Japan has steadily strengthened and modernized the SDF and broadened the scope of its activities. This process began with the approval of SDF participation in overseas UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) in the 1990’s, and continued with the 2001 launch of a fuel resupplying mission in the Indian Ocean to support coalition forces fighting the war in Afghanistan; the sweeping 2006 reorganization of the SDF under a central command; and the 2007 decision to upgrade the Defense Agency to the ministerial level.
More recently, under DPJ rule, the year 2011 saw the establishment of an SDF overseas base in Djibouti for its anti-piracy mission and the lifting of a 40-year embargo on weapons exports. Currently, the Noda administration is considering the strategic use of its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) program in the form of providing patrol boats to neighboring Asia-Pacific nations, starting with the Philippines. This would allow Japan to project military force to other countries without going over its traditional one percent cap on defense spending.
The joint stationing of SDF troops on US bases in the Pacific would be the most dramatic step thus far. Unlike the base in Djibouti, where the SDF’s anti-piracy mission is unlikely to lead to conflict with neighboring countries, an SDF presence in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands would involve the prospect of potential conflict with a major regional power: China.
The debate within Japan the remainder of this year is likely to focus not just on the practical question of how China and the rest of Asia would react to the deployment, but also on the legal question of the constitutionality of such a deployment. As Jiji Press noted, “the government’s position is that the objective of stationing would be limited to exercises and training, so the constitution’s ban on the overseas use of military force would not apply, but there may be criticism that little by little this could lead to overseas dispatches.”
Although the more liberal Japanese outlets, led by Asahi Shimbun, are likely to lead what they see as the good fight against the new deployment, the political stars are aligned against them. The conservative press, as well as the LDP-led conservative opposition in the government, always supports any move to strengthen the SDF. Meanwhile, the DPJ, which traditionally opposed loosening constitutional restrictions on the SDF, is now the one proposing the change. With no Okinawan opposition to worry about, the government will be thrilled to be able to give the US what it wants – especially if, as is likely, the Futenma impasse continues. Meanwhile, given the precipitous decline in Japanese attitudes towards China in recent years (see graph), the Japanese public is likely to support the Noda Administration’s plans, notwithstanding the reservations of the liberal segment of the media.
The US, for its part, is almost certain to welcome what the Wall Street Journal (Japan edition) described as “Japan’s new zeal for contributing to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.”
If realized, the combined stationing of SDF and US forces on US bases in Guam and the Northern Marianas should put a rest to any lingering US concerns about the DPJ. When the left-leaning party swept to power three years ago after more than 50 years of nearly unbroken conservative LDP rule, many US observers worried that Japan might start shifting closer toward China and away from the US. Initially, there appeared to be evidence to support those worries. But two Prime Ministers later, the Noda Administration has already gone a long way towards assuaging those worries. Moving ahead with combined stationing abroad would be a clear signal that even under the DPJ, Japan is definitively throwing in its lot with the US against the Chinese.
About the author: Conrad Chaffee, Exovera's Media Analyst on Japan, has spent five years living and working in that country. He was an assistant correspondent for the Washington DC bureau of Tokyo Shimbun newspaper before joining Exovera.