RELATED STORY:Guam expansion central to U.S. realignment strategy in Asia

TOKYO — On Okinawa, long-suffering residents are fed up with U.S. Marine Corps helicopters relentlessly beating above their rooftops.

In Tokyo, an assertive new Japanese government is reopening basing questions that the U.S. military thought were settled.

Even on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific where support for American military bases was taken for granted, local officials are suddenly asking the Pentagon to slow a huge expansion plan.

Sixty-five years after the U.S. victory in World War II cemented America’s military presence across the Far East, rumblings of discontent are growing. Nationalism, not-in-my-backyard syndrome, the rising influence of China — all are playing a role.

What’s not clear is whether the signs amount to momentary disaffections or deeper, seismic shifts in Asian public opinion that could eventually force America to redraw its military footprint across the Pacific.

Scholars, military experts and political leaders say the U.S.-Japan military alliance — the foundation of America’s strategic presence in Asia — could be on the cusp of change as new administrations in both nations search for equilibrium in their half-century-old relationship.

“The U.S. doesn’t have a lot of options in Asia,” said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Japan is it.”

Other countries in the region are taking notice of what’s transpiring between Washington and Tokyo, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The credibility of both nations “is on the line at a very critical time in Asia,” Smith said. “I think everybody’s watching how the U.S. and Japan are handling this. I think this is a very serious moment for the two governments.”

Futenma: Ground zero

The fault line in the U.S.-Japan alliance centers on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, smack in the middle of an urban area of Okinawa.

The base hosts CH-46 and CH-53 helicopters and KC-130 aerial refuelers, which take off and land over crowded city blocks. Fourteen years ago, the United States offered to move the base to quell rising anti-American fervor after three U.S. servicemembers abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawa girl.

The move was supposed to show that the Japanese and U.S. governments were serious about reducing the American bases that cover one-fifth of the island. But relocation efforts stalled due to environmental concerns and other wrangling over alternative sites, even after new impetus for the move came in 2004 when a Marine helicopter crashed into a university building just outside Futenma’s fence.

Ultimately, the relocation was made the linchpin of a 2006 realignment pact, under which Washington and Tokyo agreed that Marine air operations on Okinawa would be moved to an airfield to be built at Camp Schwab, in a more rural area of the island. Once that airfield was built, Futenma would be closed and 8,600 of the 17,000 Marines stationed on Okinawa would be moved to Guam by 2014, with Japan picking up more than $6 billion of the expected $10 billion tab to build accommodations for them.

But last fall, the newly elected Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, abruptly halted the carefully choreographed base relocation plan he inherited.

He called for a review of the 2006 pact and assembled a committee to look at all possible alternative locations for Futenma’s operations.

Hatoyama’s reason for scrutinizing the long-standing U.S.-Japan military alliance has its roots in local Japanese politics, according to experts on Japanese politics.

The prime minister’s power is based on a coalition of support rather than the backing of a single political party — and keeping that coalition together means paying serious attention to leaders on Okinawa, where many people wish both the U.S. military and the Tokyo government would leave their island alone.

Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who was in office in the mid-1990s when the decision to close Futenma was first made, refers to local attitudes toward the U.S. bases as “magma boiling under the surface.”

He said Hatoyama painted himself into a corner on Futenma because Okinawans expect the prime minister to keep his word. Hatoyama repeatedly promised to quash the relocation project during his campaign last summer, and his party won in a landslide on Okinawa.

“We believed in him and we still have faith in him and hope he will keep his word,” Ota said.

“We didn’t pick up on this,” Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, said last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think that all of us, on the American side, were shocked that a political party might actually do what they said in their platform.”

But Hatoyama may have picked the wrong fight to try to force changes in the alliance, said Keiichi Inamine, who served as Okinawa’s governor from 1998 to 2006.

The new prime minister has “opened up a can of worms,” he said. “It will not be easy to find an alternative site that satisfies all parties.”

It’s unclear whether the new Japanese government — with an unprecedented number of freshman members of parliament — has weighed potential security threats posed by North Korea or China against appeasing local leaders, said Stephen Yates, a senior fellow in Asian studies for the American Foreign Policy Council who was a senior national security affairs assistant to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“We have a political party in Japan that is playing with rebalancing the alliance without a plan to increase Japan’s capabilities to fill the gap for their own security,” Yates said. “They are talking about the politics of the day rather than the long-term consequences.”

Washington bristles, then waits

Washington at first dug in its heels when Hatoyama put Futenma’s relocation on hold, setting up a rare public dispute between the longtime allies that caught the region’s attention.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates immediately said any changes to the complex 2006 pact were unacceptable. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in during a January speech in Hawaii, saying that “we look to our Japanese allies and friends to follow through on their commitments, including on Futenma.”

“What is really happening here,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, “is that the two countries have two new governments that are figuring each other out.

“I don’t think either side is covering itself in glory in this saga,” Kingston added. “It wasn’t good for Gates to come over here bellowing, ‘My way or the highway,’ and it wasn’t good for Hatoyama to appear so indecisive.”

The rift is worrying other Asian nations whose security is linked to the U.S. but whose economic fortunes are increasingly tied to China, said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.

“They’re saying, ‘What are you doing?’” Klingner said. “ ‘You’re making us nervous.’ ”

Official language from Washington has since been tempered as the Obama administration awaits Hatoyama’s review process to conclude, with a report scheduled to be completed in May.

Yates believes Washington’s patience is the correct tack. And, in the end, he said he thinks that a major upheaval in U.S. forces in Japan is unlikely.

“Overall, I remain optimistic,” Yates said. “Big change is very hard to do in competitive democracies.”

But American generals and diplomats are not waiting. They have recently begun reaching out to Japanese media and started making speeches to Japanese audiences stressing the importance of the alliance.

Last month, for example, Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, the Hawaii-based commander of Marines in the Pacific, framed a speech at the Tokyo American Center by noting that the Marines on Okinawa are “the only forward-deployed, available U.S. ground force between Hawaii and India.”

They must be ready to confront any regional situation, Stalder added, including the defense of Japan — and that means that whatever happens with Futenma, the Marine Corps will need an airfield on Okinawa to support the thousands of Marines who will remain on the island after the 8,600 relocate to Guam.

“Geography matters,” he said, adding that all anyone has to do is look at a map and see Japan’s proximity to North Korea and China.

Others agree.

“Unfortunately, North Korea is not going away,” said Richard Bush III, director for the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. “The geopolitics of East Asia have not changed.”

Land of rising questions

The current tension between the United States and Japan comes as China’s expanding economy and military growth raise new questions about how Beijing intends to exert its rising influence.

But some regional experts say that any American concerns are overdrawn.

“China is not the threat the U.S. had made it out to be,” said Chalmers Johnson, president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of San Francisco. “It has too many internal problems to make going to war with other countries a good idea.”

Instead, Johnson said, China’s rapid military growth is a reaction to the permanent American presence in Asia. If the U.S. military backed out of the region, Johnson said, China would slow its own military ambitions.

Satoshi Morimoto, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo and a national security and international relations expert, said many Japanese also discount any potential Chinese threat. And that in turn has caused many to question the need for the U.S.-Japan military alliance in its current form.

“[A] decrease in the public’s sense that China is a threat means there’s less of a belief in the need of the U.S. military presence in Japan,” he said.

Four months ago, Hatoyama met President Barack Obama in Tokyo on his first trip to Asia as commander in chief. He spoke two words in English to the American president, summing up half a century’s worth of diplomatic relations: “Trust me.”

Still, said Temple University’s Kingston, neither side should take for granted that the future of the U.S.-Japan military alliance will look like the past.

“Both sides better be thinking about a Plan B,” he said, “whatever that might be.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now