U.S. port call irritates Okinawans

Minesweeper's rare friendship visit draws protests on security treaty anniversary

Kyodo

A U.S. naval ship has been moored at a civilian port in Okinawa Prefecture since Tuesday in defiance of local demands that the port call be canceled.

Andria Slough, commanding officer of the minesweeper USS Defender, said at a press conference that Tuesday’s stop at Hirara port on Miyakojima Island is aimed at deepening bilateral friendship.

It is “a great honor to make this port visit bring this milestone here of the 50th anniversary of (the revision of) the Japan-U.S. security treaty,” Slough said.

“This visit is our demonstration of the United States’ commitment to the defense of Japan,” she said. “Our continued naval presence is a reflection of our commitment to the most important bilateral security alliance we have in the world.”

It is only the third time a U.S. Navy ship has docked in Okinawa since the island chain was returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972.

About 80 sailors aboard the 1,312-ton vessel, deployed to the naval base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, are scheduled to meet with local businesspeople and take part in voluntary activities, including a cleanup of the coast, until the ship departs on Friday, according to the U.S. Navy.

Okinawa, which has continued to host the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan since its reversion from U.S. occupation, had urged the U.S. Consulate General in Okinawa and the U.S. Navy to cancel the port call, arguing that the U.S. military should refrain from using civilian harbors except in emergencies.

On Tuesday, about 40 local residents rallied at the port to protest the call, saying “Don’t enter the port” and “We won’t allow for any military use of Miyakojima.”

The visit by the U.S. warship comes amid rising tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are escalating a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands southwest of Okinawa. The islands are referred to as the Diaoyu in China and the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan.

Raymond Greene, the U.S. consul general in Okinawa, who was also at the press conference, denied any direct connection between the port call and the Sino-Japanese row.

Greene, however, stressed that the region is strategically significant to the United States and that it is important for Washington to display its military presence there.

The USS Defender is the third U.S. warship to call at a civilian port in Okinawa since the USS Guardian and the USS Patriot docked at other ports in June 2007 and April 2009, according to the prefectural government.