Location key to region's security

U.S. defense shift keeps Okinawa in strategic mix


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The 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan came with a price — the continued use by the United States of sprawling military bases and other facilities in the prefecture to protect Japan and maintain peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

The patience of Okinawa’s residents who have had to live with the specter of aircraft accidents and aircraft noise pollution is wearing thin amid the overwhelming presence of the U.S. military, which effectively occupies 18 percent of the main island. Antimilitary sentiment has remained particularly strong in the prefecture, the site of one of the bloodiest World War II battles in the Pacific and a U.S. occupation that lasted until 1972.

But 40 years on, security experts say Japan, including Okinawa, is strategically more important than ever to the U.S., especially amid China’s increasing military might and the growing budgetary constraints on Washington.

Military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa said Japan is the only country in the area that can offer support to the U.S. geopolitically, financially and technically. “Half of the world, from Hawaii to Cape Town, is being supported by the U.S. military forces in Japan . . . and no other country can replace Japan,” Ogawa said. “The Japanese archipelago is the only power-projection platform for the U.S.”

At the end of April, Tokyo and Washington agreed to downsize the U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa by 9,000 service members as a part of the ongoing realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, based on a bilateral accord inked in 2006. Out of the 9,000, 4,000 will be relocated to Guam. The rest will be deployed elsewhere, mainly to Hawaii, in line with the new U.S. defense strategy. This decision, however, does not mean any decline in the strategic importance of Okinawa and Japan overall to the U.S. military, Ogawa said.

“The move to Guam was originally a way to mitigate the burden on Okinawa, but it is also a way to (lessen casualties) by spreading the (marines around if) China targets the U.S. bases in Okinawa,” Ogawa said. “Dispersing them means more flexibility in dealing with” possible crises with China.

In January, President Barack Obama unveiled a new U.S. defense strategy that attached greater importance to the Asia-Pacific region and wariness of China’s expanding military power, by highlighting an “agile” and “flexible” presence amid overall downsizing due to budget cuts.

The new plan calls for separating the marines into smaller groups and rotating them around the region, including to Hawaii, Guam, Okinawa and Australia.

“China’s midrange ballistic missiles cannot reach Darwin, Australia, so deploying marines there is meaningful in trying to contain China,” Ogawa said.

Experts note two of the biggest potential sources of conflict between China and the U.S. are Taiwan and the conflicting territorial claims over the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, are competing with China’s claims to the territories.

Many military experts believe the U.S. military presence in Japan, including the elements in Okinawa, deter China from crossing the line.

“The biggest problem would emerge if China tries to demonstrate its control over the waters and threatens the sealanes,” said Hiromichi Muromoto, a professor of security issues at Musashino Gakuin University in Saitama Prefecture. “To protect the freedom of navigation, the U.S. will not let China prevent other ships from going through.”

China has also been acting more aggressively in the East China Sea by sending vessels near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands. China and Taiwan claim the uninhabited islets.

Muromoto, a former official at the old Defense Agency, noted the Self-Defense Forces alone would not be able to cope with the Chinese military, thus the continued presence of the U.S. forces under the mutual security treaty plays the key role of deterrence.

“What is important is to show that the SDF exists under the Japan-U.S. security pact and that if China were to (act against Japan), the U.S. military would respond,” Muromoto said.

“China doesn’t want to start a war with the U.S. And so (the U.S. forces) being in Okinawa has enabled the region to maintain stability,” he explained.

But the people of Okinawa, on the other hand, are long fed up with the central government’s maintenance of the U.S. military presence.

All postwar prime ministers have effectively vowed to find a way to lessen “Okinawa’s burden.” But since the 1972 reversion, only 19 percent of the land used for military installations in Okinawa has been returned to the prefecture.

To speed up the process, Japan and the U.S. have started looking to revise the 2006 Tokyo-Washington agreement to realign the U.S. forces in Japan. The matter has been deadlocked over the contentious relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the densely populated city of Ginowan to Camp Schwab on the Henoko coast in Nago, farther north on Okinawa Island.

In addition to the 9,000-marine downsizing in the works, the two governments also agreed that land from five U.S. bases and facilities in the southern part of the island will be returned in three stages.

The original 2006 agreement had grouped the relocation of the Futenma base, the move of the thousands of marines out of the prefecture and the return of the base land as a package. But Tokyo and Washington decided to treat each component separately as it became obvious the Futenma replacement base won’t be built anytime soon amid the strong local opposition.

This “delinking,” however, has triggered strong concern in Okinawa that the U.S. will continue the Futenma status quo, said Manabu Sato, a professor at Okinawa International University, which is located next to the Futenma base. In 2004, a marine helicopter crashed on the campus, injuring its crew.

“Continuing to use the Futenma base is not a problem for the U.S. and it is leaving it up to Japan to find a resolution. . . . But that means the Futenma base will be used indefinitely, which would be (counterproductive toward mitigating) Okinawa’s burden,” Sato said. “Futenma must be returned for safety reasons.”

Sato noted that the U.S. military issue in Okinawa is much more complex than just the “antibase sentiment” on the surface. For more than half a century, the Okinawans have had to deal with aircraft noise pollution, both from U.S. military and SDF aircraft, but at the same time, many have developed good relations over the years and share a special bond as many local women have married U.S. servicemen, the professor pointed out.

The prefecture’s historical relationship with China is also different from mainland Japan. For hundreds of years, Okinawa was the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, which prospered from sea trade due to its proximity to Japan, China and Southeast Asia. The islands weren’t incorporated into Japanese territory until 1879.

But Okinawa has not been interested in being under Chinese rule, Sato said. “It’s true that about 100 years ago, Okinawans wanted to belong to China, after they were placed under the control of the Japanese government. But that sentiment has long disappeared and if anything, locals are scared of China,” Sato said.

Pundits agree a military confrontation with Beijing must be avoided, especially since both Japan and the U.S. have become economically dependent on the massive and growing Chinese market. And military experts stress that strengthening the presence of a more mobile U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region will act as a deterrent.

But Sato expressed concern that the U.S. defense shift aimed at China may be doing more harm than good. “Deterrence means preventing a war. We need to establish a framework to prevent military clashes, but I am afraid the brakes to stop a war from breaking out are becoming weaker,” Sato said. “If Japan thinks it can control the situation while racing down the road toward military confrontation with China, it is wrong and we could end up facing an all-out war with China.”