Okinawa has remained a thorny issue between Japan and the United States since the end of World War II when the Island was given under American trusteeship and after when the Island was reverted back to Japan in 1972. The matter of US marines on Okinawa is not settled yet. Now all eyes are turned to see how President-elect Donald Trump would look at the issue: to move away from the military alliance with Japan; to continue to maintain troops on Okinawa Island? To ask Japan to pay the entire military cost of the alliance or to maintain its security on its own?
During election campaign, Trump asked Japan to pay the entire cost of the military alliance. At the moment, Japan contributes 70 percent cost and this practice has been continuing for many decades. Japan says that it has paid US$ 1.7 billion cost of the stationing of 50,000 US troops in Japan in fiscal 2015. Trump puts the figure at 50 percent share of the alliance and asks Japan to pay 100 percent cost. Trump asked Japan to cough up more money to retain the alliance.
The alliance provided military security to Japan and remained as a symbol of strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan tackled strategic disputes and issues from the prism of this alliance over decades. The alliance became a powerful tool of Japan’s arguments with its North East Asian neighbours. No country invaded Japan and it also never became a threat to other countries. This was the beauty of this military alliance.
Politically speaking, Japan’s subordinate position under US domination continued. Some adored this military relationship but other discarded. The latter wanted to see a more independent Japan free of US pressures and burden sharing the entire cost of the military alliance.
They preferred to see a ‘’Normal State’’ of Japan and not to be hostage to the growing and changing interests of the United States.
Many, on the contrary, wanted to maintain the status-quo of the alliance under which Japan ascended to economic pre-eminence and well defended its strategic causes against other nations especially Japan’s hostile relations with Russia, China, and the two Koreas, and also host of other nations.
These divergent views have been prevailing in Japan since the 1980s but no sharp decision has been taken by either side. The issue became more apparent after Trump asked Japan to share the cost of the entire military alliance if it wants to seek security and defence provide by American troops on Japan’s soil.
“If Japan gets attacked, we [Americans] have to immediately go to their [Japanese] aid,” Trump said, and “if we [Americans) get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. That’s a fair deal?” The Japanese “can sit home and watch Sony television”, he asked in August 2015 during election campaign. Does this mean that Trump wants to enlarge the scope of alliance up to US internal security and asks Japan not to take the free-ride of security any longer. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not positively nodded in favour of Trump’s demand.
The issue is not as simple as it looks. It is not simply the sharing of the entire cost of the military alliance. It is also the sharing of the entire gambit of host of issues and tacking by Japan itself as many in Japan think that if Japan shares the entire cost, what is the logic of hosting US troops on its soil? And this would not make Japan’s defence independent of US influence even if Japan pays the entire cost.
They also argue that the United States has perpetual troubles in the Middle East and Afghanistan etc., and this brackets Japan as the ‘’most allied ally’’ of the United States and creates troubles for Japan’s defence and foreign policy and Japan’s subordinate status on the alliance would not come to an end.
Notwithstanding this situation, leaders in Japan generally appreciate the alliance and adhere their allegiance to the alliance. Sharing the cost had never been a thorny issue between Japan and the United States and it continued under the spirit of bilateralism and larger common global concerns. Trump decided to see the military alliance from the cost-benefit analysis and purely from an economic point of view as a multi-billion tycoon. He thinks that traditional military cost of US military presence abroad increased its debts and weakened its economy.
For Japan, there is a political cost of the military alliance with the United States. Japanese people and society also take a negative view of the social impact of the stationing of US soldiers at Okinawa Island. The trouble started in 1995 when a young Japanese girl was molested by US soldiers. There aroused a country-wide protest asking to oust US troops on Japan’s soil. Okinawa was on the forefront. For Tokyo it was difficult to satisfy the Okinawans.
They would be happy if Tokyo bears the entire cost of the alliance and asks Washington to vacate the island and let Japanese to manage their affairs by their own. Okinawa is a tiny Island and bears 74 percent of US troops stationed in Japan. The issue keeps Tokyo and Okinawa in perpetual mistrust.
An earlier attempt to vacate the Island by US troops taken by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama went in vain in 2010. He resigned amidst Okinawa row. It is true that Japan simply cannot walk away from the alliance. There are many other hidden costs. Japan also needs to normalise ties with China and Russia. The North Korean fury should come down. The withdrawal of US troops from Okinawa could only effectively work if such externalities were addressed at first place.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He writes on East Asian affairs.