Strengthening Alliances in East Asia Is the Wrong Way to Go

by , October 03, 2012

Risking an explosion of public anger in Okinawa, the U.S. Marine Corps is sending crash-prone MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane, to the islands. The white-hot opposition to the aircraft on the islands goes much deeper than just the possibility of a few civilians being killed by wayward aircraft.

Okinawa has suffered discrimination at the hands of its Japanese rulers ever since Japan conquered the independent island kingdom in the 1870s. After World War II, the United States ruled Okinawa as a military colony until returning it to the Japanese in 1972. Yet the Japanese, still treating Okinawans as second-class citizens, foisted a disproportionate share of residual U.S. forces on them. Today, more than half of the 50,000 U.S. military personnel still stationed in Japan — long after World War II ended — reside in the already crowded islands.

Okinawan mass protests over what they see as U.S. military occupation are nothing new but have recently equaled those in 1995 after the rape of a local schoolgirl by three U.S. Marines. According to The New York Times, many analysts say that any crash of an Osprey aircraft could lead to violent protests that could threaten the U.S. military presence on the islands.

Adding insult to injury, in response to public outrage over the rape case, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to move the Futenma U.S. Marine air station, which will house the Osprey aircraft, out of the crowded city of Ginowan, but the agreement has never been carried out. Further dashing Okinawan hopes, in 2009, the then-Japanese prime minister promised not only to move the base from Ginowan but off Okinawa altogether but then caved in to American and Japanese pressure.

The Japanese government chooses to play with fire in Okinawa by allowing the Osprey deployment because it is currently in a ridiculous maritime dispute with a rising China over some tiny, barren, and uninhabited atolls in the East China Sea. Some of the 15,000 Marines stationed in Okinawa could now reach those islands using the longer-range Ospreys, whereas they couldn’t using more mundane and much less expensive transport helicopters. The Japanese government recently enraged China by buying the atolls from their private owner. So the Japanese government is willing to toss MV-22 aviation fuel on smoldering Okinawan unrest to be backed up by the U.S. while throwing gasoline on the island dispute with China.

Like America’s close alliance with Israel, America’s protection of Japan appears to be leading to more aggressive behavior by the client state, which could drag the United States into an unwanted war. It’s like a schoolyard dispute in which one of the participants becomes more aggressive because his big brother is standing behind him. Even worse than the similar situation in the Middle East, the U.S. could be dragged into a shooting war with a nuclear-armed power — and over an issue that has no bearing on vital U.S. security interests.

And this is only the most egregious example. The United States is also beefing up or reinvigorating alliances with South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand to put a containment ring around the rising China. Ironically, the U.S. is even moving closer to its former foe, communist Vietnam, to contain China. The Obama administration is adding ships, aircraft, and personnel to the entire region in its “pivot” toward the Pacific, after tiring of its two land quagmires in other parts of Asia.

All this when the U.S. has a sluggish economy and record budget deficits and national debt. The Cold War is long over, and many of those East Asian client states that have their defense subsidized by the U.S. have become wealthy. Those nations could easily form an alliance that would act as a first line of defense against the rising China, thus relieving the United States from deploying forces far forward — in places like Okinawa. In fact, because amphibious assaults across water are so difficult to undertake, the islands of the Pacific — such as Japan (including Okinawa), Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia — are more easily defended than countries with land borders, such as Israel or the European nations. Besides, China, traditionally a land power with a “people’s army,” still excessively invests in that army for political and internal security reasons — at the expense of the navy, which could more easily threaten Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and Thailand. Instead, ridiculously, with its huge deficits and debt, the United States is borrowing money from creditor China to subsidize the defense of wealthy, otherwise easily defended countries against, well … China.

The United States, from its Pacific bases in Hawaii, Guam, and Wake Island, could become a balancer of last resort, getting involved in an East Asian dispute only if China became so powerful that these other East Asian nations together could not contain it. If the U.S. continues its unnecessary and expensive forward-deployed posture of being the region’s primary security guarantor, future violent protests in Okinawa may be the least of its worries.

Read more by Ivan Eland