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Was there something going on under the surface when U.S. Navy ships recently made an unprecedented string of calls across the nation?There’s no evidence of that, but plenty of speculation by military analysts and elements of the general public.The port calls — the official line is that the navy was making goodwill visits — coincided with the announcement of a final report on the review of the 1978 guidelines for defense cooperation between Japan and the U.S. The USS Independence, which is forward deployed to the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, called at Otaru port in Hokkaido on Sept. 5, the first visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to a Japanese civilian port.In the month that followed:1) The USS aircraft carrier Constellation called at the U.S. Navy base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.2) The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and 3rd Fleet flagship Coronado made port at the navy base in Yokosuka.3) The USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship based at Sasebo, and the destroyer USS John Paul Jones visited Kagoshima.4) The 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge, also of Yokosuka, visited both Harumi Pier in Tokyo and Hakodate, Hokkaido.Some citizens’ groups and lawmakers have denounced the concentration of visits by the U.S. warships. Takao Kita, a Tokyo-based member of a 300-strong pacifist group, said the U.S. was taking advantage of the defense report’s release by scouting available infrastructure at Japanese harbors such as water levels and port sizes, and by sounding out reaction from local residents.”It was obvious that the U.S. forces anticipate, when calling at civilian ports here, what they could do in a military emergency under the new guidelines,” Kita said. But Rear Adm. John B. Nathman, commander of Carrier Group Seven, rebuffed the allegation when his aircraft carrier Nimitz called at Yokosuka on Sept. 21.The prime aim of the Nimitz’s first visit to Japan was to “ease young sailors into the host nation’s culture,” Nathman said, adding that the coincidence of other U.S. naval vessels’ port calls was only a matter of “scheduling.” After the Blue Ridge visit to Tokyo, Kita’s group submitted a written petition to Gov. Yukio Aoshima urging the metropolitan government to refuse further use of harbor facilities by the U.S. forces.Local port authorities have also expressed anxiety, claiming Japan and the U.S. are trying to make the port calls an accomplished fact even before the new guidelines, or any legislation that may be required to put the guidelines into practice, are referred to the Diet. In fact, the government will probably face many legal problems before actually enabling the use of civilian ports by the U.S. military.Among the potential legal hurdles are legislating an absolute right for warships to use civilian facilities and services in a military contingency, and coming up with a workable procedure to gain cooperation from interested local parties and make up for business losses if a U.S. ship interrupts port operations.The new guidelines, which are not binding, call on Japan to ensure the temporary use by the U.S. military of civilian ports and airports as well as Self-Defense Forces facilities as part of bilateral cooperation in emergencies in areas surrounding Japan. The government is supposed to provide logistic support such as fuel, weapons and other materials by, if necessary, flexible use of ports and civilian workers.Anticipating a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Washington has reportedly listed several civilian ports and airports it may need in an emergency. They include the ports of Kobe, Fukuoka, Niigata and Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, as well as Otaru, Hakodate and Tomakomai, all in Hokkaido.

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