Commentary / Japan

Making the case for a Trump visit to Okinawa

Such a move would bolster the security alliance in the face of Chinese encroachment

by Tetsuo Kotani

U.S. President Donald Trump is making his first Asia tour next month. The White House announced that he will visit Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Hawaii between Nov. 3 and 14. He will discuss with his counterparts the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific region and the denuclearization of North Korea.

Although the detailed itinerary has not yet been made public, it is likely Japan will be his first stop. Trump is expected to have meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito during his visit to Tokyo. There is some speculation that Abe and Trump will play golf together as they did in Mar-a-Lago in February.

Trump’s visit to Japan provides a good opportunity to further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. Given the serious nuclear weapons and ballistic missile threats from Pyongyang, Trump and Abe can demonstrate their commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea. The two leaders will discuss how the Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military can strengthen deterrence and defense.

North Korea is currently the priority issue for the alliance, but it is not the only challenge Tokyo and Washington face. Over the longer term, it is China that will test the alliance. In fact, Japan has been wary of the possibility of China dispatching maritime militias, coast guard ships and People’s Liberation Army units to the Senkaku Islands in an attempt to weaken Japan’s administration over the area while the United States is busy coping with North Korean provocations.

According to data published by the Japan Coast Guard, three to four Chinese coast guard ships have sailed in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands almost daily over the past several years, weather permitting. They also make about three intrusions into Japanese territorial waters every month.

China has been taking these actions to cook up the fiction that Japan’s administrative power does not extend to the Senkaku Islands. China knows that if it attempts to seize the islands by force it would have to contend with the SDF, supported by the U.S. military. China is aware that such an attempt would be risky and costly. In the meantime, China knows Japan cannot exercise its right to self-defense, and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty does not function in a “gray zone” situation, when it is fishing boats and white-hull ships that threaten Japan’s administration.

The U.S. government also remains firmly committed to the Senkaku Islands. The U.S. has made clear that it intends to take no position on the question of territorial sovereignty over the Senkakus since the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. However, Washington has acknowledged that the islands fall under Japan’s administration and are within the scope of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. Under the Obama administration, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the president himself declared this U.S. position repeatedly. Going further, they stated that the U.S. opposes all actions that threaten Japan’s administration and to make it clear that Washington does not accept China’s attempts to produce a gray zone situation.

The Trump administration has repeated the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands. The joint declaration issued after his meeting with Abe in early February expressly stated that the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and that the U.S. opposes all unilateral actions aimed at harming Japan’s administration over the islands. More importantly, Trump became the first American president to state the U.S. obligation to defend the Senkakus in writing without any reference to the proviso regarding the territorial sovereignty. In other words, Trump has stepped up the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands.

Despite this, China has never stopped its attempt to create a gray zone situation. The Japan Coast Guard has a special task force, consisting of 12 patrol vessels, to defend the Senkakus. Indeed, they are keeping watch over the waters on a 24/7 basis. Japan’s administration over the Senkaku Islands remains unshaken. However, the Chinese coast guard is rapidly increasing the number of patrol boats in its possession and is expected to commit 12,000-ton class ships to the Senkaku Islands in due course.

One of the largest national security challenges for Japan is how to reduce the number of Chinese coast guard ships sent to waters around the Senkaku Islands and the frequency of their territorial intrusions. Needless to say, Japan has the primary responsibility to deal with Chinese gray zone coercion. The Japan Coast Guard will continue to be the first responder to such a coercion keeping in close contact with the SDF. Tokyo will also accelerate diplomatic engagement with Beijing for a peaceful resolution.

But there is one thing Trump can do for Japan. He can demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands by visiting Okinawa. The Senkaku Islands belong to the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, and the Japan Coast Guard special task force is based on Ishigaki Island. It would send a strong signal to Beijing if Trump were to visit Ishigaki Island and the Coast Guard headquarters there with Abe to boost morale and repeat the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands.

U.S. presidents, when they visit South Korea, inspect the DMZ to demonstrate a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance. Likewise, U.S. presidents should visit Ishigaki Island, one of the front lines to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, visited an SDF facility on Yonaguni Island, Japan’s westernmost island, with his Japanese counterpart in May. His visit to the SDF facility monitoring air and maritime activities in the East China Sea demonstrated the strong alliance. A U.S. president’s trip to the front line would further strengthen the U.S. commitment.

Mr. President, please visit Okinawa.

Tetsuo Kotani is a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. He covers Japanese security policy and the Japan-U.S. alliance.