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Oki-Now-What?

OSAKA – Japan’s alliance with the United States is widely viewed as a crucial counterweight to China’s hegemonic ambitions, which pose significant threats to Asian security. But, although the United States and Japan are conducting joint naval exercises in the East China Sea in order to signal to China that it should tone down its actions over the disputed Senkaku Islands, all is not well with the alliance.

Controversy over the deployment by the US Marines of 12 tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft to the Futenma Air Base on Okinawa has contributed to the alliance’s decay. The hybrid aircraft – which combine a helicopter’s ability to take off and land vertically with the range, loading capacity, fuel efficiency, and speed of a turboprop airplane – are instrumental to deter possible Chinese or North Korean aggression in the area.

Yet the plans have fueled the most persistent anti-American protests on Okinawa in decades, owing to safety concerns. Indeed, the aircraft’s accident-plagued record includes six fatalities since 2007 and two crashes this year. Given that Futenma is located in a densely-populated urban area that includes more than 100 schools, hospitals, and shops, critics contend that the Osprey would endanger the lives of thousands of island residents.

But the level of outrage over the Osprey deployment is not proportionate to the threat – especially given the aircraft’s benefits. This disparity between fact and perception reflects the root cause of the decay in the bilateral alliance: neither country fully appreciates the ongoing need for the alliance, or the political costs that it must bear for the sake of security.

In the view of Okinawans, they have been unfairly burdened since 1945 by the concentration of American forces on the island, which has resulted in fatal aircraft crashes and crimes against residents by US troops, including the brutal rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by three US servicemen in 1995. In fact, just last month, two US sailors were indicted for raping a Japanese woman. In this context, just one fatal Osprey crash could trigger powerful anti-US sentiment on a strategically important island.

While the Japanese government has backed the Osprey deployment, it has failed to allay residents’ anger. Okinawans were already furious that the Democratic Party of Japan-led government broke its pledge to relocate the Futenma Air Base. But, with Japan’s political system mired in a protracted transition under a dysfunctional two-party regime, recent governments have been unstable and weak, unable to satisfy either side’s demands.

Indeed, while the current government has acceded to US deployment plans, it has also attempted to appease Okinawans by conducting its own inquiries into recent accidents (which ultimately supported the Pentagon’s findings of pilot error) and insisting that it will persuade the US government to respect their needs. In so doing, it has cast the US military as the villain – a move that could eventually hollow out American support for the alliance.

A new approach to alliance management is essential to revive public support for the partnership on both sides of the Pacific. Citizens must be reminded that US forward deployment in Okinawa – with financial support from Japan –enables both countries to project power across the region.

To decouple concerns about the Osprey from the issue of crimes by US military personnel, bilateral agreements for criminal jurisdiction must be revised. While the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement does not have to be amended per se, given that its key stipulations closely resemble those of its NATO counterpart, crucial details set under the auspices of the bilateral security pact curtail the scope of Japanese jurisdiction over US forces stationed in Japan.

As a result, felonious servicemen have largely escaped justice. This arrangement – a legacy of the post-war US-led occupation, which was underpinned by a victor-loser mentality – must be changed to make the alliance sustainable.

Moreover, it is crucial to emphasize appropriate risk-taking. After all, the Osprey’s safety risks are insignificant relative to the security threat posed by, say, a North Korean missile or Chinese aggression in the area, especially the nearby Senkaku Islands. While the Osprey’s safety risks should be limited as much as possible – for example, by restricting flight routes, flights in “helicopter” mode, and training airspace – Okinawans must understand that the Osprey deployment is part of the price of the US security guarantee.

Nevertheless, the US should conduct a comprehensive review of force posture and access to air bases, centered on rotational deployment between Guam and Okinawa and dispersed access to auxiliary air bases and civilian airports across the greater Okinawa area. This approach not only makes operational sense, but it also will lessen the burden on Futenma, without requiring that a replacement facility be constructed – which would incite controversy of its own.

Finally, Okinawans should be offered compensation to offset the opportunity costs of forced coexistence with US forces. Specifically, the Japanese government should subsidize community development on Okinawa – at least until the security environment changes.

If mishandled, the Osprey issue could cause serious damage to the US-Japan alliance. In order to confront mounting security challenges in Asia, American and Japanese leaders must acknowledge the partnership’s value – and reinvigorate public support for it.

Read more from our "Japan's Turning Point" Focal Point.