Between Okinawa and the Senkakus: Charting a Third Way on Japanese Security

In late September, I had the opportunity to ride aboard an MV-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor hybrid aircraft whose deployment at US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has triggered a storm of protest in Okinawa and around Japan. Unfortunately, my limited expertise in the field of military aircraft prevents me from using that experience as raw material for any substantive report on the Osprey itself. But the demonstration flight did provide me with an opportunity to ponder the Osprey controversy in the context of the other high-profile security issue with which Japan is grappling at the moment, namely, our dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands.

On a gut level, I had to agree with those who argue that Tokyo is in no position to say no to its American allies, now that tensions with China over the Senkaku Islands are threatening to boil over. Under these circumstances, we have little choice but to affirm the status quo vis-à-vis the US military's bases in Okinawa, including the deployment of the Ospreys.

© Official US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller
© Official US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller

This answer may suffice for the moment. But without some viable plan for resolving the underlying issue farther down the road, we run a serious risk of finding ourselves without recourse should the situation in Okinawa take a turn for the worse. After taking a closer look at these issues, I began to discern the outlines of a solution to both in a new long-term approach to foreign policy and security—a hybrid strategy for international relations synthesizing the best elements of realism and liberalism.

The Gist of the Osprey Flap

The first step toward resolving Japan's dilemma is to clarify the real cause of the Osprey controversy by untangling the various issues involved.

One issue is whether the Osprey is, as some have charged, a defective aircraft, too dangerous for deployment under ordinary circumstances. The available data suggest that it is not. The accident rate of the MV-22B Osprey—the specific model deployed by the US Marine Corps in Japan—is 1.92 per 100,000 flight hours, as compared with 1.11 for the CH-46E Sea Knight, the transport helicopter that the Osprey is replacing.

It might be argued that 1.92 is considerably higher than 1.11, but it is still substantially lower than the rate of 2.45 recorded for all Marine Corps aircraft. Furthermore, because the CH-46E Sea Knight is aging—the model first came into use during the Vietnam War—its accident rate is certain to rise. For this reason, replacing it with the Osprey makes sense, even from a safety standpoint.

Not being an expert on aircraft, I do not claim that the foregoing answers all questions about the Osprey's safety and reliability. But I do think it suggests that the crux of the matter is not so much safety flaws inherent in the Osprey's design as the dangers of leaving Marine Corps Futenma Air Station at its present location, in the midst of a densely populated residential area.

Even if the US military agreed to defer deployment of the Osprey and continued operations at their present location using the older choppers, local residents would still be exposed to the risk of accidents, and Futenma would still be a powder keg threatening the Japan-US security arrangements.

Even more fundamental than the Futenma problem per se is the underlying political controversy surrounding the US military bases in Okinawa, which have long been the targets of local protests. The people of Okinawa resent the high concentration of US military bases in their prefecture and the continued failure of the Japanese and US government to take their concerns seriously.

Attempts to placate residents with logical arguments regarding the safety of the Osprey are futile because the roots of their opposition run much deeper. An article in the October 1 New York Times online edition ("US Sends Aircraft to Okinawa, Despite Fierce Opposition") summed up the situation neatly, noting that while the ostensible focus of local protests was the Osprey's safety record, "Okinawan political leaders and analysts said the issue had become a lightning rod for deeper grievances over how Washington and Tokyo have imposed what islanders see as an excessive base burden on this tropical island."

From the standpoint of international security, further delays in the deployment of the Osprey was not a realistic option for either government, especially in view of mounting tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands. With a maximum speed of 509 kilometers per hour, the Osprey can fly almost twice as fast as the CH-46E. Its 3,334 km flying range is almost eight times that of its predecessor, and it has four to five times the mission radius.

This means that the Ospreys at Futenma would enable rapid deployment of Marine combat forces to the Senkaku Islands. This capability constitutes a major psychological deterrent for the Chinese, now that American officials have made it clear that the disputed islands are under Japanese jurisdiction and are covered by the Japan-US Security Treaty.

But while government claims about the Osprey's relative safety and its importance as a deterrent may be correct, these are not valid arguments for ignoring the larger problem posed by Futenma. With each incident involving US military personnel or installations in Okinawa (such as the alleged rape of a Japanese woman by American sailors in October), the political environment surrounding the US bases becomes more hostile.

To say that Japan depends on the Ospreys as a deterrent is to say that the security of Japan as a whole would be in jeopardy if the United States were forced to abandon its bases in Okinawa out of political considerations.

The Crux of the Senkaku Dispute

Let us take a moment now to consider the Senkaku problem and its broader significance.

In September this year, the Japanese government signed a contract to purchase the three islands that were still in the hands of a private owner. Although the government insisted that the move was necessary to preempt a purchase being contemplated by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, the Chinese saw it as a deliberate change in the status quo, aimed at strengthening Japanese control over the islands. The purchase triggered anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and threatening behavior by Chinese fishing and patrol vessels in Japanese waters near the Senkakus.

The growing tensions over these uninhabited islands are symptomatic of larger developments in the region. One is the rise of China as an economic, political, and military power and Japan's relative loss of influence. Another is Beijing's genuine sense of alarm over Tokyo's efforts to strengthen the Japan-US alliance and step up security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations in response to China's growing power.

But another important factor is the situation within China, where political and social strains are threatening the stability of the Communist regime. The Communist Party of China, which derives its legitimacy from its war of resistance against the Japanese invaders, sees anti-Japanese propaganda and a hard line toward the Japanese government as a way of stirring up nationalist sentiment and redirecting the dissatisfaction of its own people outward.

The highest priority for Japan over the short term is to prevent any needless escalation of the conflict by keeping the channels of communication open. Fortunately, the US government and the Pentagon are maintaining fairly close contact with their counterparts in China. Military exchanges between the United States and China have continued uninterrupted even as relations between China and its neighbors have deteriorated over the Senkakus and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

For example, last May Beijing hosted the second US-China Strategic Security Dialogue, jointly chaired by US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Zhijun and attended by Acting Under-Secretary of Defense James Miller, Commander-in-Chief Samuel J. Locklear of the US Pacific Command, and Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

During the same month, Chinese Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie visited the United States and met with a number of top US defense officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. Accompanied by personnel from the Chinese army, navy, and air force, Liang toured military installations nationwide. PLA Deputy Chief of Staff Cai Yingting also visited the United States in late August, even as tensions ran high in the South China Sea and around the Senkaku Islands.

Washington's approach to the dispute between Japan and China has involved a kind of balancing act. The United States has moved to deter any aggressive action on China's part by giving notice that the Senkakus are covered by the Japan-US alliance. But it has also refrained from any blatant interference so as to keep open the channels of communication with China that enable it to act as a mediator. At the same time, Washington has called on Japan to refrain from any provocative actions. This policy, aimed above all at averting an armed conflict, dovetails exactly with Japan's top priority, and its success demands closer coordination than ever between our two countries.

Other short-term priorities for Japan are to beef up the number and capability of its Coast Guard's patrol vessels, enhance the ability of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to engage in a joint response with the US military, and maintain a strong enough deterrent capability to deny China any opening for aggressive action.

A New Long-Term Approach

But while these steps are clearly necessary in the short term, they do not offer a long-term solution.

Given the essential role of the United States in averting an outbreak of hostilities over the Senkakus, doing anything that would weaken the Japan-US alliance is not an option. But protecting the alliance also requires that we defuse the ticking time bomb that is Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Chinese suspicion and hostility toward Japan is another time bomb that needs to be defused to ensure our long-term security.

To be sure, these are difficult problems, neither of which can be resolved overnight. But we can begin to solve both by addressing two major strategic challenges.

Over the long term, Japan must incrementally boost its own defense capabilities to preserve a relationship of mutual trust with the United States. For Washington, which needs to make sharp cuts in military spending over the next decade, there could scarcely be a better time for Japan to begin shouldering more responsibility for its own defense and for the security of the region

At the same time, Japan needs to sharpen its own diplomatic and public relations skills and put those skills to prevent China, South Korea, and other countries in the region from overreacting to its defense buildup. In the territorial disputes over the Senkakus and Takeshima (claimed by South Korea), Beijing and Seoul have both attempted to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Japan's claim by linking it to the "imperial aggression" of an earlier time.

These efforts have had a measure of success, moreover, thanks to the growing clout of the Chinese and Korean economies and a skillful public relations campaign. Under these circumstances, Japan needs to be very circumspect in its speech and behavior. For example, if the Japanese government were to cave in to nationalist sentiment here in Japan by retracting or amending the 1993 Kono statement apologizing for aggressions during World War II, it would merely strengthen the hand of its overseas critics. More than ever before, Japan needs to convince its neighbors and the international community of its ironclad commitment to the universal principles of democracy and human rights and to the resolution of conflicts in accordance with the rules of international society.

For Japan, tackling the two tasks outlined above will be a major challenge. Traditionally, Japan's left has focused much of its energy on opposing remilitarization and the Japan-US alliance, while the right has resisted efforts to take stock of Japan's past transgressions.

What we need now is a hybrid approach that combines a new realism backed by hard power with a new liberalism focusing on the use of soft power. In terms of the Okinawa base issue, this means maintaining the status quo over the short term while recognizing the need to get to work quickly on a medium-to-long-range strategy for addressing the dissatisfaction of local residents without compromising Japan's overall defense capability.

As it happens, a new generation of politician is emerging, offering hope for such a synthesis, even in this era of political dysfunction. In this context it is significant that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, whose new political party has made such a splash in the media, once resisted forging alliances with old-school right-wingers like Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Takeo Hiranuma, with whom he has subsequently joined forces. As a member of Hashimoto's generation, I can understand his reluctance. In the end, I believe it makes more sense for rising politicians in their forties and fifties to stay aloof from the left-right struggle of an earlier generation and lay out their own synthesis of liberalism and realism for a new hybrid strategy merging hard and soft power.

Tsuneo Watanabe

  • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation

    Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation