Skip to main content

Transfer of U.S. Okinawa troops a doubly good move

By Patrick Cronin, Special to CNN
updated 5:11 PM EDT, Tue May 1, 2012
Okinawans protest recently the plan to move a U.S. military base to another part of the island
Okinawans protest recently the plan to move a U.S. military base to another part of the island
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 9,000 Marines will be tranferred from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii and Australia
  • This resolves a pact to reduce U.S. troops in Okinawa, easing local tensions
  • Cronin: The move also balances U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Cronin: U.S. presence helps preserve order, influence in the fast-growing region

Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

(CNN) -- The long-term strategy behind America's military repositioning in Asia is gradually revealing itself. A series of moves over the past six months will set the stage for rebalancing U.S. naval, air and ground forces in the region.

In November, the United States announced a permanent rotation of Marines through Australia, the stationing of up to four ships in Singapore, and expanded military exercises with the Philippines. The White House also pledged that it would protect its Asia-Pacific military forces from upcoming defense budget cuts.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's visit to Washington this week came after an announcement about American forces in Japan. Some 9,000 Marines will be transferred from Okinawa, the prefecture that hosts the majority of U.S. forces in Japan, to three other sites: Guam, Hawaii, and -- on rotating training deployments -- Australia. The deal broke the gridlock that had been holding up a reduction of U.S. troops in Okinawa.

A mutual decision not to resolve the thorny issue of a replacement facility for Marine aviation stationed at Futenma eased the way, as did the Japanese agreement to pay more than a third of the $8.6 billion cost of the move.

Patrick Cronin
Patrick Cronin

Okinawa is part of the long Ryukyu Island chain that acts as a natural barrier between the East China Sea and the Western Pacific. U.S. forces have been stationed there since the Battle of Okinawa, the largest Pacific amphibious assault in World War II.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The United States retained possession of Okinawa until 1972, by which time U.S. forces had ensconced themselves in a series of military installations. In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by three U.S. servicemen sparked a furor over the vast military presence in Okinawa.

The inability to make good on a 15-year-old agreement to reduce the U.S. presence and hand back more than 20% of the land occupied by troops and to substantially reduce U.S. forces has been an open wound in an otherwise robust alliance with Japan.

The new deal should soothe but not solve local tensions. U.S. forces demonstrated their value in responding to last year's massive earthquake and tsunami, and they remain ready to deal with a range of potential near-term threats.

But the transfer of Marines from Okinawa is the latest element giving definition to a long-term strategy to preserve regional order and U.S. influence throughout Asia. These gradual changes are happening amid a variety of key debates: within the United States, about the necessity and affordability of a strong presence in Asia; within China about whether America's "return to Asia" is aimed at containing growing Chinese power; and within the region over the durability of America's commitment to underwriting order in the Asia-Pacific region.

There are good reasons for retaining but dispersing U.S. military forces throughout the region.

First, the Asia-Pacific region is of growing global importance economically and politically, a long-term trend that has made it a rising priority for U.S. administrations since the end of the Cold War.

There is indeed a desire to preserve a favorable balance of military power so as to deter and accommodate a re-emerging China; yet the retention of U.S. forces in the region is not designed to curb Chinese growth.

U.S. and Japanese leaders label this as dealing with "uncertainty." It hedges against a variety of contingencies, from conflict with North Korea to natural disasters, while also reassuring allies, engaging a larger number of regional partners, and allowing the United States to be a force for stability within an evolving regional order.

Second, these changes emerge from a longstanding need for better management of the U.S.-Japan alliance. To reduce the political if not the financial costs of stationing forces in Japan, the United States must lighten the burden on local populations, especially in Okinawa.

A closer integration of U.S. and Japanese forces is likewise under way. China portrays the U.S.-Japan alliance as a Cold War relic incompatible with expanding cooperation with China; but most regional neighbors see it as a reassuring bellwether of stability.

Third, the U.S. rebalancing redistributes forces from a few, fixed bases that are increasingly vulnerable to such emerging potential threats as China's missile, cyber and space capabilities, and maritime and air forces.

Retaining the III Marine Expeditionary Force headquarters and some forces in Okinawa, the United States is shifting two Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (each comprising about 2,500 troops) to an emerging strategic hub in Guam, rotating another through Darwin, Australia, and basing supporting elements in Hawaii. These forces are more resilient because they are more difficult to target, yet well poised to maneuver together in the event of a crisis.

In short, the shifting of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region is designed to deter conflict, respond to contingencies, reassure allies and partners, and shape an evolving regional order, including cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

Japan, once called an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," remains critical to U.S. basing strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Some 30,000 U.S. forces will remain based in Japan, about the same number as in Korea. The number is higher if you count U.S. forces afloat. But as prosperous Japan and South Korea assume more responsibilities for their defense, the United States has a strategic, fiscal, and operational need to redistribute its assets. The growing importance of islands, from Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to Hawaii and other islands that will be used for prepositioning and training, helps build flexibility in the American Pacific strategy.

Various Obama administration officials place an emphasis on America as a "resident power" of the region rather than a foreign presence. But many in the region welcome U.S. military presence precisely because it hails from a distant great power capable of underwriting peace in a region riven by historical conflicts, territorial disputes, resource competition, and disparate values.

The emerging U.S. basing strategy is designed to build on America's long-standing presence while ensuring that its stabilizing power remains welcome for decades to come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick Cronin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT