TOKYO — The outgoing commander of U.S. Forces Japan said the United States and Japan must focus on building their security alliance despite a high-profile debate centered on the American military presence on Okinawa.
Controversy over where to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the southern island should not overshadow the governments’ plans to further integrate their military forces in the name of regional security, Lt. Gen. Edward Rice told reporters Thursday in Tokyo. His replacement, Maj. Gen. Burton Field, will be in the potentially tricky situation of having to improve and promote ties between U.S. and Japanese forces with the Futenma debate still lingering in the background.
“It’s important to stay engaged in the Futenma issue,” Rice said Thursday at a press conference in Tokyo. “(But) we have many other things that we need and are working on together.”
The longtime debate over Futenma – which U.S. officials contend is integral to a historic realignment of U.S. forces in the region – escalated a year ago when the Democratic Party of Japan took power and sought to find an alternate location outside Okinawa for Futenma, scheduled to be closed when a new airstrip is built on Camp Schwab. Those efforts failed, forcing Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to resign after reaffirming the Camp Schwab plan.
“With Futenma we are certainly not at the end of the road yet,” said Rice, who will be promoted to general when he takes command of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas next week.
Field, who will pin on his third star when he replaces Rice as the top U.S. military officer in the country on Monday, comes to Japan after serving as the senior military adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When he does so, he will inherit a 2014 deadline for the realignment and the Futenma plan that residents of the southernmost prefecture still vehemently oppose. Both candidates in the November race for Okinawa governor oppose any new base construction there and want the Marine air units moved outside the island.
Experts say the riff over Futenma has pushed aside progress on broader issues over the last year, such as how the alliance — considered the linchpin of Asian security — will respond to China’s growing military and the function of a U.S.-Japan missile defense shield, which the countries began developing more than a decade ago.
Rice would not comment Thursday on the kind of military support the U.S. would provide if the current dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over a chain of islands in the South China Sea escalated.
And while he pointed to the relocation of Japan’s Air Defense Command to USFJ headquarters at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo as an indictor of “concretely strengthening” the alliance on missile defense, it remains to be seen whether Japan could engage its anti-missile systems if the target of an attack was aimed outside its borders because of its constitutional restriction on engagement outside self-defense.
“Such a scenario is the Achilles heel of the relationship,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.
Both Japan and the United States tout “strengthening” the alliance, but the underlying U.S. goal is for Japan to expand the role of its military beyond self-defense, Roy said.
The United States “want(s) to work toward collective defense,” he said.
Plans for President Barrack Obama to make a proclamation on the future of the 50-year-old U.S.-Japan security alliance while in Japan next month were scrapped because of the residual strain from Futenma, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported this week, citing unnamed sources.
In his role as USFJ commander, Field will play the military diplomat in Washington’s efforts to resolve the Futenma issue and map out the way forward for the U.S. Japan alliance.
Field “can make a contribution if he puts the emphasis and resources to improving the atmosphere in Japan,” Roy said, by “taking as many opportunities as possible to explain to the Japanese public why the U.S. military is important in Japan … and serves Japan’s interests.”