Sunday, March 23, 2008

Trouble at the Tip of the Spear

"Trouble at the Tip of the Spear"
Tobias Harris
Observing Japan
March 23, 2008

Most of the concerns about the lack of progress in implementing the 2006 US-Japan realignment agreement have focused on political troubles in Japan, as Tokyo has struggled to get local governments involved in the relocation of US forces in Japan to accept the terms of the 2006 agreement. With the change of government in Iwakuni removing an obstacle (and, in accordance with Tokyo's tit-for-tat tactics, resulting in the restoration of frozen subsidies to Iwakuni) and the environmental survey at Camp Schwab in Okinawa proceeding, albeit irregularly, attention is now shifting to Guam, the receiving end of the realignment agreement.

A look at Guam shows that even if the Japanese side of the process was proceeding smoothly, the US still has substantial work to do to prepare Guam to host an additional 40,000 US service personnel, dependents, and contractors, a substantial increase from the 13,000 who are there presently (in addition to 173,000 civilians).

The stakes of the Guam buildup are enormous. For Guam's citizens, the expanded military presence will mean a massive boon to the territory's economy. For the US military, Guam will become an important hub for the Navy, Air Force, and Marines, a transformation already underway as far as the Air Force is concerned. Contractors are undoubtedly excited about the projected $13 billion price tag, a number that will likely increase. But preparing the island for the massive influx of US forces will require cooperation among the federal government, the Japanese government, Guam's government, and the US military — and for the moment, cooperation has been elusive, raising questions about whether the project will begin in 2010 as scheduled.

The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, highlighted an additional problem: Madeline Bordallo, Guam's congressional delegate, is struggling to build a coalition that will support funding for the project. The article notes that Ms. Bordallo is having a particularly hard time gaining support in the Senate, where Guam has no representation. (Another problem is that many lawmakers know nothing about Guam, beginning with its location.)

Federal funding is indispensable, because this project is not just a matter of military bases. The influx of personnel will entail major improvements in the island's infrastructure, which is already stressed due to its position in Typhoon alley and a surprisingly costly snake problem. It will entail new homes and schools. (The Washington Post reviewed the infrastructure and funding problems in an article last month.)

What does this mean for the Japanese government? According to the 2006 agreement, of course, Japan is obligated to pay $6 billion towards the transfer of Marines to Guam, meaning that Tokyo will be paying for this massive construction project. Undoubtedly Washington is eager to receive Japanese funds. But given the coordination problems that have hampered the process to date, and the oversight problems that will undoubtedly dog the process in the future, is Japanese money worth what the Japanese contribution will cost in terms of efficiency? The debate in the Diet last year over Japanese fuel contributions that may have been diverted to the Iraqi campaign was in a sense a preview for the debate that will surround the use of Japanese funds in Guam. While most of the contribution will be in the form of loans from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), the GOJ's $2.8 billion direct contribution will come under intense scrutiny from the opposition — and if the DPJ and other opposition parties manage to form a government, the 2007 law authorizing the use of Japanese funds could be repealed (if the DPJ's opposition to the law's passage is any indication).

Admittedly, though, the efficiency gains for releasing Japan from its obligations are the least important argument in support of this idea, because as noted above the process is inefficient as is.

I think that the next president should offer to renegotiate the 2006 agreement and to release Japan from its financial contribution as a gesture of goodwill and a signal that the next administration will mark the beginning of a new, more equitable era in the alliance. For the Bush administration, a closer alliance has meant an alliance in which Tokyo is more subservient to Washington. The next administration can break from the past by recognizing Japan's financial difficulties and freeing Tokyo from having to pay for construction on Guam. While the Japanese financial contribution will be missed, particularly as the price tag grows, the change in tone that would result from renegotiation would yield long-term benefits from US-Japan cooperation (instead of the ill will associated with the current arrangement).

Meanwhile, the next president should make preparations on Guam a priority for US Asia policy and use presidential power to solve the coordination problems currently hampering the construction project, pressuring Congress to appropriate funds for the construction in order to expedite the process. (And the US might as well finance it from deficit spending and let China pay for the construction.)

Tobias Harris
I am an American, Chicago-born, and a fledgling Japan/East Asia specialist, who until recently worked as an aide to a member of the Japanese Diet. I have been published in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal Asia, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and J@pan Inc. I can be contacted at
Posted by Added Entry at 7:56 AM

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