Japanese eye big bill to relocate US forces

But leaders say both sides will benefit from major realignment of US forces in Asia.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Plans to realign American forces in Japan by 2014 represent the most significant shift of US military forces in Asia since the Vietnam War.

They come at a time when Asia's threat levels, as seen in Japan, are far higher than even five years ago. China's intermediate-range missiles, now aimed at Taiwan, can also reach Japan's southern shores. North Korea claims that it has weapons of mass-destruction capability.

The shifts in forces, as well as the costs, are substantial - as much as $30 billion, of which Japan would be asked to pay $26 billion.

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Under the new arrangement, US and Japanese forces will be practicing war-fighting in a more closely coordinated environment, not unlike that of US-NATO forces. US planes would start practicing with Japanese fighters at six Japanese bases, something that has not happened before. Japan will participate fully in a new program that will put Japan deeply into the US defense grid via the Aegis missile-defense network.

Some 8,000 US marines will leave Kadena base in Okinawa. They will shift to the tiny island of Guam, the "tip of the spear" of US forces, in a new complex of 148 apartments, schools, and buildings costing $10 billion, of which Japan will pay some $6.1 billion.

Yet here, the costs of "committing to US strategy," as an editorial in the Japan Times puts it, comes at a moment when deficit spending is weighing heavily on the public mind, and when America's profile is not at a peak of popularity, in part due to the Iraq war.

That's why over the past week, as the $30 billion and $26 billion figures were released by Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Richard Lawless, the 2014 plan has developed a black cloud over it in the public mind.

Not even a 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office between President Bush and the mother of a Japanese kidnapping victim - North Korean abductee families in Japan are hugely popular - has seemed to entirely chase away the mist.

Mr. Lawless has since said the $30 billion figure may dip to $20 billion; use of the figure was intended to ameliorate opposition in the US Congress, where, some argue, Japan takes a "free ride," on US forces in Asia.

At one point, Japanese media noted there was only one historical example of a former host nation paying relocation costs: in 1990, when Germany paid for Soviet troops to leave the East.

"It is a lot of money, and the US has just told us to pay it," says a shopper in a Tokyo convenience store who gave his name as Takai.

"They [the Japanese public] obviously don't want to pay the basing bill," says one US official. "It is a huge issue here, but it is a taxpayers' issue, and it gets resolved when the issue is security."

Leaders see a 'win-win' situation

Indeed, as the implications of the "two plus two" meeting in Washington (involving the foreign and defense ministers of the US and Japan) shakes out, it appears that top leaders on both sides are quietly congratulating themselves for a win-win deal that will substantially deepen the mutual alliance, mission, and capability. Moreover, as the costs are examined, it appears that a good deal of the payout will go to firms already part of Japan's well-oiled public works machine.

"It is actually a terrific deal for both sides," says Kent Calder, director of the Reischauer Center at Johns Hopkins University, who is currently conducting research in Tokyo. "Japan gets the power projection that it wants and needs. Plus there is a domestic-spending upside."

Beijing is closely eyeing these developments. Leading newspapers have run several detailed accounts per day.

US officials counter the argument over Japan's unique high cost with their own point that the highly "asymmetric" security relationship between Japan and the US is highly unusual in modern history. "The US defends Japan in all circumstances," one highly placed State Department source here points out, "But Japanese, by terms of the alliance, don't have a mirror obligation. We will defend Tokyo, but they don't have to defend Los Angeles. Looking at costs, this isn't an exercise in charity. There is a tradeoff."

Third major shift in US forces in Japan

The two-plus-two agreement, if it holds, represents the third shift in US forces in Japan, since the end of World War II and the American occupation under Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In 1957, most of the US soldiers scattered throughout Japan were sent home, and bases were consolidated. In 1972, US forces were further consolidated, and most sent to the island of Okinawa, where they have been located ever since.

In the new plan, the US Army will move its 1st Corps headquarters from Washington State to Camp Zama in Japan's Kanagawa Prefecture. The headquarters of Japan's Self-Defense Forces will also locate at Zama. Japan's air defenses will be headquartered at an enhanced base at Yokota, near Tokyo. Advanced US missile-defense systems will be placed in Aomori Prefecture, and Patriot and air-land-sea radar systems will become increasingly interoperable.

Two different landing strips will be built at a cost of as much as $4 billion. Some 8,000 marines will move out of Okinawa, where they have been unpopular.

"The paradox about this plan is that the security alliance is now deepening, even as the US troop presence is scaling down," says Mr. Calder.

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