The ‘Security Consensus’ and the US Military in Japan and Asia

Kerri Ng, PhD Candidate, Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 3 (Book review 3 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 13 December 2015.

Yeo, Andrew (2011), Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests, New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 978-1-107-00247-0, hardback, 240 pages.

Over the last two decades, the United States and its allies have taken great efforts to realign US military posture in the Asia-Pacific region. The realignment has been designed around maintaining its modern military capabilities, which enable the US to provide a reassuring presence in the region despite having reduced its footprint since the Cold War. At the same time, it is also an attempt to address domestic political pressures in several host countries, including Japan. Amidst rising tensions and with growing concerns over non-traditional security issues such as piracy and disaster relief, many commentators agree that a strong US presence remains necessary, even if opinions differ on its exact nature (e.g. Schwartz 2014). In this context, the continuing stalemate over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (MCAS Futenma) in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture presents a potential challenge to both the US-Japan alliance and regional stability. Furthermore, that Okinawan civil society has managed to stall the relocation represents a puzzle in the field of international relations (IR), where state priorities are usually presumed to triumph over local interests, particularly given the progress of a similar realignment process in South Korea.

Base Politics: The Impact of Anti-base Social Movements

Following on from earlier studies (e.g. Calder 2007; Cooley 2008), Andrew Yeo’s Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests makes a significant contribution to both the comparative study of the politics surrounding America’s overseas military bases, or ‘basing politics’, and a new understanding of the current challenges related to base issues that confront the US-Japan alliance. Yeo also seeks to address an important gap in the literature: understanding the ways in which social movements influence foreign military basing and other alliance agreements (page 7). This perspective has largely been left to scholars interested in social movements and their effects on domestic politics. By contrast, for those focusing just on basing politics, even as different international and domestic factors have been considered, states and state elites continue to be viewed as the primary actors. Cooley’s (2008) study of how regime type and regime change enable host elites to politicise or depoliticise basing issues for domestic purposes is one such example.

In Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests, however, Yeo attempts to synthesise the social movement and the IR literatures on basing politics through a two-tiered framework that incorporates both international and domestic levels. Drawing on constructivism, he therefore encodes both structural factors, in the form of threats and threat perceptions amongst elites, and domestic factors, such as political institutions, into a single variable that he terms the ‘security consensus’ (page 7). His argument is that a weak security consensus—where the host nation’s elites are divided as to the importance of their country’s security relations with the US—provides a window through which civil society activists are able to affect security policy significantly. In the case of Japan, he suggests that it is the strong consensus present amongst national elites that has prevented base activists from achieving their aims of base reductions in Okinawa.

Drawing Links between State and Civil Society Actors

To establish his ‘security consensus’ framework, Yeo begins by defining the parameters of his study (Chapter 1). He defines security consensus as the ‘shared perception and intersubjective understanding of the concept of national security held by host government elites’, and narrows this further to apply to cases involving states that have signed base-hosting agreements with the US (page 14). Yeo argues that the level of this consensus over US-host-state relations determines the degree of success of anti-base activists in shaping basing agreements in relation to their goals. When a strong consensus exists, elites involved in creating security policy are united in favour, and activists are unable to influence the agreements; when there are differences amongst those elites, activists have a greater chance of utilising these divisions to achieve their aims.  The findings from the following chapters, in which the security consensus framework is applied to several bases in East Asia, Europe and Latin America, are consistent with Yeo’s hypothesis. For instance, the failure of the anti-base movements in Okinawa to achieve their main goal—the complete removal of the bases—is attributed to the existence of a strong security consensus in Japan, as evidenced by many statements and agreements emphasising the importance of the US-Japan alliance for Japan’s security (Chapter 3). This strong consensus, Yeo argues, has led to the creation of institutionalised government resources such as incentive structures and legal procedures that enable Tokyo to prevent significant changes to the existing basing contracts.

Yeo then looks at the broader implications of his framework and findings. First, recognising that his study largely assumes that the security consensus has ‘a fixed quality’ (page 149), he examines the variation in the security consensus over time, and how this affects the strategies used by both activists and governments in trying to achieve their basing policy aims (Chapter 6). Three possible factors are named: changes in threat perceptions, changes in domestic ideologies and institutions, and external shocks or major events. In the case of the Philippines, the evolution of domestic attitudes towards the US presence led to the weakening of the security consensus as citizens voted for representatives who were less supportive of the alliance. This enabled the anti-base movement to influence the Senate vote that led to the removal of the bases following the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. On the other hand, increasing threats in the late 1990s strengthened the security consensus, bringing about a new visiting-forces agreement with the US (page 163). On Okinawa, Yeo argues that, despite a change in government in Japan in 2009, anti-base activists’ access to the bureaucratic structures involved in creating basing policy remained limited. His prediction, made in 2011, was that if the security consensus continued, Tokyo would ‘agree to relocate most of MCAS Futenma’s functions within Okinawa prefecture, disappointing anti-base activists and local residents once again’ (page 175). So far, this appears to be coming to pass, given the failure of the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan to broker an agreement to relocate MCAS Futenma out of the prefecture in 2009 and the efforts being made by the current government, led by the Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Abe Shinz┼Ź, to move ahead with the relocation to Henoko Bay (Envall and Ng 2015).

An Innovative Two-Tiered Framework

The two-tiered framework Yeo develops in Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests—reminiscent of Victor Cha’s (1999) noteworthy analysis of US-Japan-Korea relations—is an innovative way of bringing together the social movement and IR literatures. Yeo argues that the factors that lead states to form alliances—the material capabilities of an adversary, shaped by historical and identity-based lenses that help ‘reify or magnify threat perceptions’—can be amalgamated into a concept that reflects the understanding that host-government elites have about national security. Although Yeo’s security consensus is narrowed down to elite perceptions and understandings of the host’s relations with the US (pages 14–17), it allows for the incorporation of a range of common IR factors into a single variable operating at the first tier. Similarly, the range of tactics and strategies employed by social movement activists can also be analysed not as separate factors with differing effects, but as a single broad variable at the second, lower tier. Whether this second variable becomes important, however, is dependent on the state of the first tier: if the security consensus is high, then social movement activism does not come into play in determining a state’s security policy outcomes. Conversely, when the security consensus is low, it provides an opportunity for the agency of societal actors to influence security policy. The framework offers a convincing explanation for why basing policy outcomes might differ between countries that appear to have a similar level of anti-base activism, such as in Philippines and in Okinawa in the 1990s, and South Korea in the 2000s. 

This contribution to the literature complements earlier works (e.g. Cooley 2008) that focus on the broad trends of anti-base activity associated with regime types and democratisation processes. By comparison, Yeo’s work offers a way of analysing how particular social movements and anti-base actors shape security policy, whilst still maintaining the importance of the state. Significantly, it also outlines a credible process linking activism to policy outcomes, through elites that can be persuaded to back the movements’ preferences on a particular policy. For example, a lower level of commitment towards the alliance in the Philippines in the 1980s—as evidenced by national elites opposed to the bases and government-sanctioned studies for commercial development of base real estate (chapter 2; Foreign Service Institute 1989)—opened up opportunities for anti-base actors to persuade more senators to vote against extending the basing contract with the US. Conversely, despite strong and long-lasting anti-base movements in Okinawa and South Korea, the Japanese and South Korean governments’ commitment to their respective alliances means that few elites may be willing to work with activists towards changing basing policies. Yeo thus offers a useful paradigm through which to examine how the interaction between elites and civil society influences the politics of foreign military basing.

Yeo’s framework does, nonetheless, raise some questions. How viable, for instance, is the notion of a ‘security consensus’ as an independent variable? Yeo acknowledges that the security consensus is a ‘catch-all variable’, but argues that one ‘only needs to demonstrate whether a strong or weak consensus exists among host-government elites’ (page 17) for the variable to be effective as part of the explanation for basing policy outcomes. Yet this raises a number of practical challenges, such as whether it is possible to demonstrate a causative link between this abstract variable and specific policy outcomes, which may, problematically, be considered part of the original variable. Eliminating confounding factors also poses a challenge, while generalising in this way risks overlooking more local factors. Lastly, it is not certain that the various anti-base movements are truly comparable. Unlike in the Philippines, the Okinawan and Korean anti-base movements have sought only reduction and consolidation of the military footprint and changes to the Status of Forces Agreements rather than complete expulsion of US forces. Institutional, historical and geostrategic factors have arguably shaped the movements’ views on the utility of the alliance, suggesting that the activists themselves have also been shaped by the factors underlying the elite security consensus.

The use of basing agreements for measuring the success or failure of particular anti-base movements may also warrant re-examination, particularly when considering the basing issue in Okinawa. The Okinawan anti-base movement has been unable to force the US and Japanese governments to reconsider the 2006 agreement that calls for the relocation of the MCAS Futenma within the prefecture. However, it can be argued that the movement has not only ‘extracted several concessions from Tokyo and Washington’, as Yeo points out (page 69), but has also stalled the implementation of an international agreement between two of the largest powers in East Asia. Despite Prime Minister Abe obtaining formal approval from former Okinawan Governor Nakaima Hirokazu for the necessary reclamation work in 2013, voters replaced Nakaima in 2014 with Onaga Takashi, who has continued to impede further steps needed to implement the agreement. Scholarly focus on formal agreements is understandable: the process by which policy is made is easier to examine and analyse than the process by which it is subsequently implemented. As Smith and Clarke (1985, 5) observe, ‘the study of policy-making is concerned with the activities and attitudes of formal political leaders, institutions and definable groups, whereas the study of policy outputs is more concerned with the working of informal groupings, lower-level officials and half-understood procedures’.  Yet examining the implementation or outcome of a basing agreement, rather than the agreement itself, may shift the results.

Unfortunately, Yeo, like other scholars before him, focuses on whether anti-base activists have influenced policy outcomes (agreements) and mostly neglects their efforts at targeting this implementation stage. However, there is evidence to suggest that the manner in which agreements are later carried out or constrained may have longer-term negative or positive effects, not only on local communities but also on the value that the US and host nation elites sees in particular facilities (Ng 2013; United States General Accounting Office 2002; Inoue 2007). Yeo dedicates one chapter to considering the effects of changes in the security consensus over time on the actions of the various actors, but does not examine the opposing effect of how such actions shape the security consensus. Studying the implementation of basing and other alliance agreements may offer a window to examine the interaction between all of these factors and the ways in which they evolve over an extended period of time.

Implications for ‘the Political Science of Basing’

Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests is an important contribution to the literature on ‘the politics of basing’. Yeo furthers the work begun by Calder (2007) and Cooley (2008) by examining how the influence of social movements interacts with traditional IR concerns, such as the role of threat perceptions, in determining security policy. In doing so, Yeo adds significantly to our understanding of host country basing politics. The idea that the presence or absence of a variable at one level conditions the potential for influence of other variables at a second level provides an important means of combining different factors that have, until now, largely been analysed separately when it comes to the politics of America’s military bases abroad, including in Japan.

Some problems arise from Yeo’s attempt to reduce a number of factors into a single abstract variable. Furthermore, the use of basing policy as one measure of elite attitudes towards a host nation’s alliance with the US raises questions about whether the ‘security consensus’ risks becoming both cause and effect. Overall, however, Yeo’s framework presents an innovative means for analysing the interaction between these two seemingly disparate groups of factors and for synthesising two previously separate literatures. In particular, it offers a plausible mechanism linking anti-base activism and policy outcomes, in that activists are shown to take advantage of wavering elite commitments to their country’s alliance with the US to persuade their representatives to pursue their anti-base policy preferences. The implications of such dynamics for the US realignment and long-term strategic position in the Asia-Pacific are too often overlooked. In  Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests, they are centre-stage.


Calder, Kent E. (2007) Embattled Garrisons: Comparative Base Politics and American Globalism.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cha, Victor D. (1999) Alignment Despite Antagonism: the United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Cooley, Alexander (2008) Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Envall, H. D. P. and Ng, Kerri (2015) ‘Will Regional Tensions Shift the Deadlock on Okinawa’s Military Bases?’ East Asia Forum, August 26.

Foreign Service Institute (1989) Factbook: U.S. Facilities and Their Alternatives. Manila, Philippines: Foreign Service Institute, Research Development Center.

Inoue, Masamichi S. (2007) Okinawa and the U.S. Military: Identity Making in the Age of Globalization, New York: Columbia University Press.

Ng, Kerri (2013) ‘The Political Science of Basing in Japan’, a review of Embattled Garrisons, by Kent E. Calder, and Base Politics, by Alexander Cooley, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 13 (4).

Schwartz, Laura (2014) ‘Competition and Confrontation in the East China Sea and the Implications for U.S. Policy’, Report on the Roundtable ‘Competition and Confrontation in the East China Sea’, Seattle, WA: The National Bureau of Asian Research, February.

Smith, Steve, and Clarke, Michael (1985) ‘Foreign Policy Implementation and Foreign Policy Behaviour’, in Steve Smith and Michael Clarke (eds) Foreign Policy Implementation, London: Allen & Unwin, 1–10.

United States General Accounting Office, Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate (2002) Military Training: Limitations Exist Overseas but Are Not Reflected in Readiness Reporting.

About the Author

Kerri Ng is a PhD candidate in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University, having earlier completed an MA in International Relations in the same School. Between 2007 and 2010, she lived and worked in Okinawa Prefecture, where she also learned of the controversy surrounding MCAS Futenma. Her current research is focused on the impact that domestic interest groups have on the implementation of US military basing agreements in Japan.

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