US Military Bases in Jeopardy on Two Fronts in Asia

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Context

200_japan_us_flagUS-Japan relations are strained this month as Japanese Prime Minister Yujio Hatoyama tries to make good on an election promise to move the US Okinawa military base off the Island. While it is now very unlikely that Hatoyama will be able to keep his promise, the situation brings into focus the US’s reliance on her allies in the region for providing operational bases and supply lines, as well as the increasing awareness of China’s naval reach and aspirations. Turmoil in Kyrgyzstan has similarly brought the fate of the vital US air base in the country into question, with Russia moving in to secure its eviction.

Analysis

A pre-election promise made by Japan’s Prime Minister Yujio Hatoyama is turning out to be a bone of contention between the US and Japan, but has ultimately served to highlight the two countries’ mutually dependent status-especially when it comes to China.

The US base on Okinawa Island has long been an issue for local residence who complain of the noise and pollution from the base. The previous government had promised to move the base within Okinawa, but Hatoyama went one step further and said he would move the base off the island altogether. Negotiations were tense, but Hatoyama has finally conceded that the base will have to stay on Okinawa, as previously agreed with the former government.

Japan is constrained by several factors in regards to the US bases and US military activity on its sovereign soil:

Japan is reliant on the US in military matters as far as defense is concerned. Japan is feeling the squeeze of increasing Chinese naval activity. The only real counterweight for growing Chinese might lies in building cooperative relationships, especially with the US.

On the other hand, the US is reliant on Japan for giving it a strategic foothold in the area, and Japan has conceded that the US presence in the region is more important than an election promise, even if it is a bitter pill to swallow.

The Hatoyama government was surely influenced in its decision by the recent spout of Chinese long-reach naval operations in its waters, which took the Japanese government totally by surprise. Two naval exercises within Japanese waters took place on March 18 and April 10, on the back of the US-China standoff in the South China Sea in mid-march. Chinese naval activities are showing the world, and clearly showing its neighbors just how far the Chinese naval capacity has come, with improved command and control, flexibility and technology. With China flexing its naval muscle, Japan is in no real position to be bickering with its major defense ally.

Another US military base, this time in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, is also under question as the country recovers from an internal uprising in April. The US Manas air base in the north of the country is central to the US’s Afghan war, especially as an alternative supply route from much-used Pakistan. The interim government in Kyrgyzstan says that the fate of the US base is ‘undecided’, but in all likelihood similar constraints that made Japan reconsider its move on the US base in Okinawa will pressure the Kyrgyz government to keep the base as-is.

The only card-yet-played is in the Russian quarter, and this may well see the base evicted yet. Russia has long since eyed the US base with distrust, and sentiments boiled over in 2008 when a senior Russian official told reporters that “In Kyrgyzstan there should only be one base-Russian” while at an interview in Prague.

If the interim government is plied with enough pressure and/or inducements form Moscow, the US base could be in jeopardy, which would make its other bases in the region even more important.

China has stayed silent on the Kyrgyz issue, which indicates that, as PoliTact has previously noted, the US and China have a prickly but valuable relationship-one which China will not lay on the line to interfere with the US bases in either one of its neighbors, Japan or Kyrgyzstan.

While the end-game remains to be seen, it is more than likely that the two US bases in question will remain. This will probably come at a higher rental cost for the US, but the bases are more than strategically valuable enough to be worth the extra cost.

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