Comment on US Troop Restructuring and Japan
James Schoff (Sr. Staff Member, The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Cambridge, MA)
This article originally appeared in the "Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum" (http://lists.nbr.org/japanforum) on June 2, 2003; posted here with the author's permission.
I would hesitate to jump to quick conclusions regarding the Pentagon's plans for realignment / relocation of U.S. forces overseas. Wolfowitz has already been quoted by the Wall Street Journal today as saying, "Nor do I think there is any realism in thinking about naval bases in Vietnam." The U.S. Defense Dept. is considering a variety of possible adjustments, and there seems little doubt that some important changes will be initiated, but I don't think the precise nature of the adjustments is a fait accompli at this point.
Still, it is useful to ponder the potential impact and ripple effects of various scenarios. It has been suggested that spreading out U.S. forces in Asia could lessen Japan's strategic relevance to the U.S., but I'm not so sure. Japan is becoming a more important partner for the U.S. in strategic / military issues because of what it is willing (and able) to do (e.g. naval refueling for the campaign in Afghanistan, dispatch of Aegis destroyers, mid-air refueling exercises in Alaska, stepping up cooperation toward possible deployment of missile defense systems, etc.) not because it simply hosts marines on Okinawa. (Something like relocating the carrier group out of Yokosuka would be a different story, but don't expect that to happen.)
Some reduction in U.S. troops stationed overseas in Japan or South Korea (if that indeed happens) is not by itself an indication of declining strategic relevance. Many factors need to be looked at, and at this point I would argue that the strategic relationship between Washington and Tokyo is on an upswing.