Ex-U.S. ambassador questions having Marines in Okinawa

December 12, 2011

By JUNJI TACHINO / American General Bureau Chief

Michael Armacost, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that he is skeptical about the necessity of the permanent stationing of U.S. Marine Corps troops in Okinawa Prefecture.

He has apparently presented candid advice to the Japanese and U.S. governments, which are adhering to the current plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago in the prefecture. The plan has no immediate prospects of making progress.

Excerpts of the interview, which was held at Stanford University, based in Palo Alto, Calif., follow:

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Question: We've long been focused on the Okinawa issue but have not come up with a solution. Why can't we figure it out?

Answer: Well, my impression is that both governments have decided to keep this issue on the back burner. I don't sense that either government is pressing it very hard. Congress hasn't appropriated money for Guam. The Japanese government has no capacity to move on the Henoko site, given the opposition in Okinawa. So this issue has been there for 13 or 14 years. Operationally, not very much has happened.

But I never was clear on why the U.S. administration pressed this issue, particularly when a new government had come into power in 2009.

I don't understand why Washington pushed the issue so hard right after the DPJ came into power, since it represented the first political transition in a half century, a known new administration which had, as a campaign plank, promoted movement of the Okinawa base (and) was going to act within a few months, when the LDP had not moved in 13 years.

I've always been vexed and puzzled by the timing with which the administration sought to move that issue forward. But I think they have learned their lesson, and I think the Chinese, in the meanwhile, through their self-assertiveness on these maritime issues, have reminded the Japanese the alliance is useful. And Operation Tomodachi has had a certain effect in creating goodwill.

So, as far as I'm aware, the issue isn't a neuralgic point in the relationship; it's just something sitting out there that hasn't been resolved and, meanwhile, I presume people go on to other business. I hope they do.

I would have thought the more central issue at the moment is the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement) because it allows one to change the subject. It allows one to focus on trade, from which we both benefit. And it puts the trading issues in a broader, multilateral context that involves a lot of other Asian countries, with whom Japan and the U.S. are cultivating closer ties.

So the irony is that both Washington and Tokyo are constrained to move very rapidly on trade issues: Tokyo because of the residual influence of the agricultural lobby and divisions within the parties, and Washington because, with an election coming up and the Democratic Party so dependent on union support, it took them three years to ratify an agreement that had been signed a year before they even came into office.

So I approve of focusing on trade, because I believe in free trade. And I think it's good to put another issue at the center of our relationship. But I'm skeptical at how fast one can move because of the political obstacles in both Tokyo and Washington.

Q: President Barack Obama just visited Hawaii, Australia and Bali, and he repeatedly declared that the United States is a Pacific nation.

A: That was not new to me. I regret our involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it has unbalanced our foreign policy--to extricate ourselves from those in an honorable and successful way, that's great.

So, if you can divert the resources and attention to a region that's of intrinsically greater importance, then that's a good thing. So I approve of that; I just don't regard it as particularly new. For a few years, unfortunately, East Asia policy became kind of adjunct to American Middle East policy, or South Asia policy. And that's not healthy.

Q: Do you think, this time, the White House is serious enough to focus on the Asia-Pacific region?

A: Well it has, I think, consistently from the outset. I mean, the travel arrangements alone are indicative. Mrs. Clinton made her first trip to Asia, and Obama has visited many times. So the amount of attention it's devoted has been ratcheted up considerably.

The question will be whether or not additional resources are made available, and one of the interesting issues is what will be the impact of the fiscal problems on the composition of our military presence in Asia. The discussion in the Pentagon, as far as I'm aware, they're interested in air-sea doctrine. Counter-insurgency, basically, fuels big budgets in the Army and the Marine Corps. The air-sea doctrine is one which would shift the allocation of those monies more heavily to the Navy and the Air Force. And the Pacific is an area, of course, where the Navy and Air Force are more relevant, actually.

There is a question of ground forces. When I was starting my career in government, back in the '60s, the Guam doctrine, I thought, asserted clearly that we weren't going to devote a lot of ground forces to Asian wars. That seemed to be particularly appropriate in Korea. When the South Korean population is twice the size of North Korea's, then our strategic contribution, logically, is air power, supplemented by naval capabilities. So it does raise a question about the role of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has an organic connection to the Seventh Fleet, so the units that are related to the Seventh Fleet, I would think, would have a continuing role. But I think there is a larger question about the Marines.

One of the major functions they perform, actually, is humanitarian missions in Southeast Asia, and the reaction to these natural catastrophes. That's very helpful. But you don't have to do that from Japan. Or, if you do it from Japan, it ought to be done jointly, because ... one of the offshore missions performed by the Self-Defense Forces has been disaster relief.

So if the Marines are going to be there, they ought to be doing this jointly with Japanese forces. And otherwise, probably ... if this air-sea doctrine discussion goes anywhere, then there'll be questions about the role of American ground forces in the region. I don't follow that discussion very closely, but I find it an intriguing discussion.

Q: Don't you believe the Marine Corps has to be stationed permanently in Okinawa?

A: I wouldn't think anybody needs to be stationed permanently anywhere. "Permanently" is a long time. They've been there 60 years or more. But I'm no longer qualified to judge these things because I'm not in the discussion in Washington. But I have some questions about the necessity for that, and some people in Congress who are thoughtful people, like Senator McCain, Senator Webb, raise questions about whether or not, if you do need them, you can house them somewhere else, like Kadena.

People are always wary of this within the services, and it's easy to attribute this to inter-service rivalry, which is a factor, I expect. But the other factor is a desire to retain a capacity to surge in response to emergencies or contingencies. And my feeling has always been that if you have a genuine alliance that's meaningful, then you ought to be able to manage surges through the availability of Japanese bases and even civilian airports.

Q: Would you share your view on why this administration is still sticking to the existing plan to relocate the Futenma air station to Henoko in northern Okinawa?

A: They felt they had an agreement, and there's a natural resistance to changing agreements. I mean, the agreement was if you moved out of one place you found an alternative site. So that's the natural instinct of the services.

Second, the Marine Corps is a very powerful force in Washington.

Third, they recognize the danger of accidents, so there's no desire to be permanently operating in Futenma, where one more accident could have potentially catastrophic political implications.

And it's an awkward time to be adjusting your force level downward, at a moment when, in Asia, anxiety about China's assertiveness has grown. So I think there's a reluctance to signal, at a time when you're highlighting the importance of Asia, (to) do something which might be interpreted as a retreat.

I think those are the practical realities, but they don't leave you with a solution to the problem because the Japanese government, for 13 or 14 years, has not moved. The opposition in Okinawa has grown. The risks of an accident remain high. So sitting with the status quo is not a very satisfactory solution either.

Q: If the Asia-Pacific region is the top priority for the United States, then should the alliance with Japan be all the more important for Washington?

A: It should be a priority, but I think the problems have been that they have chosen, for whatever reason, to make this base issue a high priority with the new government, and it hasn't gone anywhere. And, therefore, I expect there's a certain frustration among the people who are primarily responsible.

Second, Japan has been rather introversive. It has been focused internally because--I don't know why--but this year, at least, the tsunami and the Fukushima incident, and the fiscal problem, all that feeds a natural focus on the problems closer to home.

And to the extent the initiative which the administration got behind as a means of reasserting itself on the regional plane, the TPP, isn't going anywhere too fast. I mean, it may be that Prime Minister Noda is a courageous guy and a smart guy who can figure out how to manage the politics of this, but the politics are complicated and the progress is slow, and the declaration of interest has been kind of ambivalent and ambiguous.

So it isn't easy to mount something that's visible and forward-looking when the politics are so complicated. Those may be the reasons, but I'm sure the premise of your question, that Japan's importance has grown and we ought to work hard on the relationship, and there have been other preoccupations.

But I think the relationship is satisfactory; it just ... doesn't have a feeling of real forward movement.

And there are no overwhelming problems that I perceive. Just that people seem to take each other ... the Japanese now take us for granted and we take them for granted. It's not moving forward at a very rapid pace.

Q: How do you characterize the role of Japan when there is a gap on the U.S. side between the commitments and the capacity in Asia?

A: I think Japan ought to do more for its own self-defense. China's budget, military budget, has gone up at double-digit rates for two decades. Japan's defense budget has declined in each of the last seven or eight years. You'd know the figures better than I would, but that's what I read. That doesn't make any sense.

And if you're worried about the Senkaku Islands and worried about China's self-assertion, you can't turn that problem over to the United States alone. I mean, that's what Japan did. And it worked pretty well through the Cold War. But if you face a challenge, you would think the navy budget in Japan, the Maritime Self-Defense Force budget, would have to increase somewhat, and the transportation ministry's budget, which pays for the Coast Guard, you'd think that would have to go up.

And I would think this would require a lot more coordinated operations, too, with us and with the Koreans and others. And some of that's happening. I think your navy has developed some relations and signed some agreements, with the Filipinos and Singapore and some others, Vietnam. It makes perfectly good sense to me.

Q: Within that picture, do you mean the Futenma issue is a really minor issue?

A: I would think it is, particularly ... it's minor only in the sense that the easiest task always, or the easiest way to resolve the problem, is just by continuing to do what you do, which works fine as long as there are no accidents. But we remember that, in 1995, an incident in Okinawa raised questions about the survivability of the alliance itself.

So I don't think it's wise policy to take those kind of risks. I trust we're doing what's necessary to do some of the helicopter training elsewhere, somehow manage the number of flights and training schedules in a way that minimizes the risk of accidents. But …

Q: Again, you don't think it's a good idea to maintain the Marine Corps in Okinawa?

A: I don't feel confident making that judgment because I haven't been down to Okinawa since 1993, and I'm sure the Marines will give you a very elaborate argument about how it's critical to deterrence. But, as I say, my view is that our role, primarily, our military role in our alliance, is mainly to provide air and naval support.

Well, Asian countries that are allied with us have got plenty of people, and the manpower requirements ought to be in your own hands.

Now, you've got demographic problems, but those can be solved by augmenting whatever forces you maintain, with higher technologies capabilities, and you've got wonderful technological prowess. So applying that to the forces that you have can compensate for the fact that you've got declining numbers of people of military age.

Q: How worried are we supposed to be about the threat of the Chinese military build-up? What is the nature of the air-sea strategy?

A: I think the talk about this air-sea strategy is partly a budget battle over who gets the resources, and partly how do you respond when the Chinese, quite inevitably, build a big navy. Because they've got a global trade, they've got resources all over the world, so they're not going to yield the defense of those sea lanes of communication to the Seventh Fleet. They don't trust us.

But as they build their capacity to project power, then it seems to me inevitable that Japan is affected by that more than we are. You're inevitably going to have to take another look at the MSDF budget and things like that.

So there are plenty of things that we could do together. We have enough time to make these adjustments thoughtfully. But it starts with deep consultations and a recognition that we've got a mutual interest in doing these things in ways that are mutually compatible.

That isn't really a satisfactory answer, because I don't know all the details of what we should do.

Q: Are you optimistic or rather pessimistic in terms of our bilateral relationship?

A: Oh, I'm optimistic. I think China has historically been mainly a continental power, so when it enters the game on maritime issues, we have some common interests. I mean, obviously, in dealing with piracy and protecting the sea lanes. But I think you'll be more nervous in working out these things with the Chinese, as they become a big power, if you don't have the reassurance of an alliance with us. And we'll be at a big disadvantage in dealing with them if we don't have the capacity to keep some of our ships out in Japan. It lowers our costs and enables us to work with you. Just as the British relationship is key to our involvement in Europe, the relationship with Japan is the most important connection out in Asia.

So people ought to take it seriously and work at it. And if Washington hasn't been doing that, then maybe this focus, refocusing of energy and attention, on Asia-Pacific will provide the stimulus to do that.

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Michael Armacost joined the U.S. State Department in 1969. He was ambassador to Japan from 1989 to 1993 after serving as ambassador to the Philippines and an undersecretary.

As ambassador to Japan, he strongly urged the Japanese government to contribute more internationally, leading to his nickname "Mr. Gaiatsu" (pressure from outside). He is currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center. He is 74 years old.

By JUNJI TACHINO / American General Bureau Chief
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Michael Armacost, former U.S. ambassador to Japan (Junji Tachino)

Michael Armacost, former U.S. ambassador to Japan (Junji Tachino)

  • Michael Armacost, former U.S. ambassador to Japan (Junji Tachino)

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