Okinawa residents may be starting to wonder what the future holds in Japan’s new security landscape and whether their prefecture, with its heavy U.S. military presence, will be the front line of defense against China.
As Japan is set to debate whether to lift its self-imposed ban using collective self-defense and how to handle “gray zone” incidents that stop short of full-fledged military attacks, Okinawa’s importance as a strategic hub is coming into focus.
When U.S. President Barack Obama said after the summit in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are covered by the bilateral security treaty, which obliges the United States to defend Japan if they are attacked, apparently reassured Abe and Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.
“It is something of a relief because territorial issues affect not just Okinawa, but also Japan as a whole,” Nakaima said after Obama articulated his stance after meeting with Abe on April 24.
However, that assurance poses a dilemma for Okinawa, which is more than 400 km from the uninhabited islets at the center of Japan’s ongoing tensions with China. The island prefecture hosts roughly 74 percent of the U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Experts say Okinawa will continue to play an important role in national security and as part of the bilateral deterrence against China — an argument that has raised concern that Okinawa could be targeted for attack in certain circumstances.
People in Okinawa have long called for reducing the number of U.S. military facilities, the legacy of World War II. But security concerns over the Senkakus have mounted. Ever since Japan effectively nationalized the Senkakus in 2012, China has been sending government ships and planes to shadow them on a regular basis in protest. This has prompted Abe to seek stronger defenses and maintain the robust U.S.-Japan alliance.
In April, the Defense Ministry broke ground on a new radar facility for a 150-member coastal surveillance unit the Self-Defense Forces deployed to Japan’s westernmost island of Yonaguni, while a new E-2C early-warning patrol plane unit was launched in the prefectural capital of Naha.
Abe vowed to ease the hosting responsibilities on Okinawa and provide financial and other incentives when he was seeking approval for the long-stalled relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. This issue is an emotionally charged one because of the war, and accidents and crimes involving U.S. servicemen.
But the outlook for building the replacement facility for the Futenma base remains uncertain, even after Okinawa’s governor approved the project. The relocation is part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces that will move approximately 9,000 Marines out of Okinawa.
“Every move away from Japan makes the military tasks more difficult — longer timelines, higher requirements for transportation, all of those considerations,” Dennis Blair, former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in Tokyo ahead of Obama’s visit.
“But we have to weigh that price against the price of long-term political support for the presence of troops,” Blair said. “We cannot simply make a military plan and then locate our forces based only on military considerations.”
For Okinawa, “gray zone” incidents are also a concern, and Tokyo and Washington need to discuss how to coordinate their response before revising the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines by the end of the year, experts say.
Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty covers armed strikes but not “gray zone” scenarios, they added. Such hypothetical cases include when a group of armed people disguised as fishermen take control of a remote island.
“To avoid a (gray zone) situation from escalating to a point where the U.S. military needs to fulfill its defense obligations, bilateral operations need to be meshed even in peacetime to maintain deterrence,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
“Japan and the United States can conduct surveillance and warning activities together, and exercises to defend territory within China’s first island chain,” Michishita said. Viewed by China as its defense line against U.S. troops, this chain includes the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan and the Northern Philippines.
Should Japan lift the ban on collective self-defense, Michishita said, one option would be to send the SDF to Southeast Asia for surveillance and warning operations.
The government is expected to decide whether to reinterpret the pacifist Constitution so the SDF can come to the aid of an ally under armed attack, after receiving a report in mid-May from experts who vaguely proposed that Japan exercise the right under “limited conditions.”
The government also aims to revise a series of relevant laws to enable the SDF to be dispatched to such gray areas and take countermeasures.
Even as Obama and senior U.S. government officials have expressed support for Japan, such a major overhaul of security policy could rattle China and lead to a “security dilemma” in the region, under which one country’s strengthening of security prompts others to take similar steps.
“All we can do as (a) military force is to hold the ring and wait for progress to continue,” Blair said, urging diplomacy to prevail in territorial disputes in Asia.
“Tensions are pretty high between the countries. It’s hard to believe we will make progress. But we need to keep working on it,” he said.