A big chasm is growing even bigger between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Gov. Takeshi Onaga of Okinawa over the government’s plan to build a new airfield at Henoko in the city of Nago in northern Okinawa as a replacement for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma located in the middle of the densely populated urban area of the city of Ginowan in central Okinawa. Behind the scenes, however, different parties involved entertain different and mutually contradictory intensions and expectations.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces are drawing up a scheme that would eventually turn the new airfield into their own military base while there is a strong voice in Okinawa opposing the reversion of the Futenma base because of the intentions of landowners of the U.S. bases’ premises who are receiving huge sums of rent from the Japanese government. The U.S. government, meanwhile, is maneuvering to fully utilize Japan to promote its own benefits.

In April, the Japanese and American ministers of foreign affairs and defense met in New York for “two plus two” talks and declared that the Henoko plan is “the only solution” that prevents the continued use of Futenma, adding the conferees “underscored their strong determination to achieve … long-desired return” of Futenma to Japan.

But those words cannot be taken at face value because concerns are growing among American defense officials about the vulnerability of the continued forward deployment of its forces in Okinawa as the U.S. stands face to face with China.

For one, Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and former undersecretary of state, has told Japanese media that relocating the Futenma base to Henoko will not be a long-term solution because it has now become necessary to think of the vulnerability of fixed military installations because of improved capabilities of Chinese ballistic missiles.

For another, Walter Mondale, who was ambassador to Japan when an Okinawan girl was raped by members of the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy in 1995, has testified that although Washington looked into the possibility of withdrawing U.S. forces from or drastically reducing their presence in Okinawa, the Japanese government asked it not to carry out such withdrawals.

A Japanese government official deeply involved in the Futenma relocation issue said Nye and Mondale’s statements represent Washington’s true feelings and that the U.S. can be dealt a fatal blow if it keeps beefing up its forces in Okinawa in proportion to the Chinese military buildup.

A high-ranking SDF officer also says that while the U.S. is thinking about a large-scale withdrawal from Okinawa in the long run, it is not likely to relinquish its vested interest, that is, its military bases there.

For the U.S. military, the most vital facilities in Japan are the naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Island, whose operational domain extends to the Middle East. Kadena has two 3,700-meter runways, the longest in the Far East while Futenma has one 2,800-meter runway. According to an American military source, Futenma has a hidden role to play in the case of a contingency — to back up Kadena when it cannot accommodate transport planes and fighters or when it is attacked.

The Henoko base is designed to have two 1,800-meter runways arranged in a V-shaped configuration, but these are too short for large aircraft like strategic transports.

As such, the existing Futenma air station is an ideal facility for the American military. But the Marine Corps had to accept the plan to relocate the Futenma functions to Henoko only as a precaution against a potential rise in anti-base sentiments among the Okinawans in the event an aircraft deployed at Futenma, such as the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey, crashes and kills local residents.

As if to prove that point, the U.S. government has been pushing a large-scale program to revamp the Futenma base since 2013, which is expected to continue until around 2020 at a cost of tens of billions of yen, all to be borne by Japan. This renovation work contradicts a publicly announced agreement between Tokyo and Washington that the Henoko facility will be completed and the Futenma base will revert to Japan in or after 2022 because the work indicates that the U.S. envisages a long-term use of Futenma.

To put it the other way around, the renovation work expresses the U.S.’ determination to continue to use Futenma even if Henoko is completed as well as the Japanese government’s accession to the long-term use of Futenma by the U.S. in contradiction to the agreement that Futenma will be returned.

The U.S. Marine Corps will move from Futenma to the Henoko facility if the latter is completed and will also relocate some of its troops to Hawaii, Guam and Darwin in northern Australia to cope with the rapid Chinese military buildup. But the U.S. military’s basic strategy is to retain the right to use Futenma as a backup for Kadena in the event of an emergency.

Even if American troops eventually withdraw from Henoko in large numbers, the U.S. is doing all it can to retain the right to use the Henoko base and to receive slightly less than ¥200 billion per year from Japan in the form of “host nation support.”

The U.S. is also aware that there is a strong voice in Okinawa against the return of Futenma. Owners of the land in Okinawa used as American military facilities receive as much as ¥80 billion per year in rent. Of the sum, the landlords of the Futenma premises receive about ¥25 billion as unearned income.

The Futenma base occupies some 480 hectares, large enough to accommodate more than 100 Tokyo Domes. Although the Okinawa prefectural government and the Ginowan city government estimate that the return of the Futenma base will generate an economic effect of ¥380 billion, the Japanese government is giving the estimate the cold shoulder.

Aware of the U.S.’ intention, the Japanese Ground Self-Defense is seeking to use the planned Henoko facility. The GSDF currently deploys about 2,000 troops of the Western Army’s No. 15 Brigade in Naha and is sounding out the possibility of deploying GSDF units in Miyako and Ishigaki islands of Okinawa Prefecture on the pretext of the defense of the Nansei Islands. The GSDF wants to secure a full-scale foothold on Okinawa Island by securing the Henoko facility.

In March, an internal document of the SDF was exposed in a Lower House Budget Committee meeting, showing a plan to permanently station about 800 GSDF troops at U.S. Marine Camp Schwab at Henoko and other U.S. facilities in Okinawa. Although Abe denied any knowledge, a high-ranking GSDF officer admitted that the paper expresses the GSDF’s desire.

Because air and naval power plays a decisive role in today’s war, the necessity of the GSDF is lessening. Therefore it is eager to defend its organizational power by obtaining the right to use Henoko.

A superficial official explanation is that the Henoko facility will be constructed to move the Futenma functions there so that potential dangers posed by Futenma to local residents will be removed. Devoid in this explanation is the existence of the mutually conflicting intentions and expectations entertained by the U.S., Okinawans and the GSDF.

Because the mass media continue to superficially report on the pros and cons on the Futenma relocation issue, the general public will have no way to know what is the crux of the issue.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the July issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes.

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