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Politics & Security

[Bookmark] With Okinawa’s Anti-U.S. Base Stand, How Can Japan Defend the Senkakus?

Activists in Okinawa, aided by Chinese and North Korean agents and the local media, jeopardize the capability of Japanese and American forces to respond to possible chaos or attacks.

Robert D. Eldridge, PhD

Published

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Denny Tamaki, the governor of Okinawa prefecture was in the protester's meeting at Henoko in 2018.

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Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new questions, depths, and perspectives to explore.

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The Senkaku Islands dispute is discussed from a variety of perspectives almost daily in the news, policy circles, and academia. Among these discussions are scenarios about how an actual contingency in the Senkaku Islands might evolve. 

This type of exercise is necessary — indeed, vital. But one angle that is rarely talked about is how anti-base activists in Okinawa (and Japan as a whole), combined with foreign agents within the prefecture, especially Chinese and North Korean, could disrupt the defense operations of the United States and Japanese forces there. 

This is a perspective that needs further elaboration. Features of some of the possible scenarios are examined below.

Senkaku is part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture

Defense of Japan: Identifying the Concerns

Anti-base activists have affected base operations in Okinawa on a regular basis. All these have taken place: blocking of traffic, physical and verbal harassment of military base personnel and their families, filming by activists of base personnel and family members as well as their vehicles, illegal entry or use of base property. And, until banned recently, drones were flown over base property, balloons near runways, and lasers were directed at the vision of pilots. 

Similarly, the media in Okinawa has often been dangerous and irresponsible, flying helicopters in restricted air space, such as when the MV-22 Ospreys first arrived in October 2012. They have employed aggressive tactics in their reporting, such as filming forbidden locations without permission, as they did after 9.11, and illegally entering base property such as at Camp Schwab in February 2015. On a non-stop basis, they have also intentionally published misleading and hostile reports, and this has impacted work on more constructive activities.

Anti-military Protest in Okinawa Henoko

Foreign Hands Push Okinawa Independence

In addition to these groups, there is an increasingly emboldened independence movement. It is important to note that it is foreign agents and the countries they come from — in particular, China — that actively support and promote the independence movement in Okinawa. The “Ryukyuan” independence movement, in turn, also works with other independence movements, such as those in Hawaii and Guam, which are similarly important geo-strategic locations.

Satoru Nakamura, an independent scholar who heads the Okinawa Policy Research Forum of Japan, is the leading authority on this subject. His greatest fear — shared by this writer — is that the Okinawan independence movement will use a contingency in the area, such as in the Senkaku Islands, to try to break from Japan or cause other chaos.

The presence of many Chinese in Okinawa and the country highlights this concern. There are reported to be more than 2,000 Chinese foreign nationals living in Okinawa, but the number is believed to be as much as twice as high. 

This number does not include those Chinese who have since taken Japanese citizenship. It also does not include Chinese tourists who in pre-COVID Okinawa numbered several thousands a day, and higher on weekends or long holidays, coming on cruise ships and airplanes directly from China or via mainland Japan or third countries.

The Futenma base

Lax Security Awareness 

Among the ordinary Chinese tourists are agent provocateurs. While passengers are occasionally checked for bringing in banned items for resale or consumption, they are not searched for items used in support of the anti-base movement, including cash. 

Cargo holds on ships and planes, similarly, are not checked for weapons or other contraband. In a contingency, it is easy to imagine these weapons being used by the thousands of mainland Chinese who were pre-positioned on the island as tourists. 

These tourists would easily outnumber police on the island and may even be greater than Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) personnel numbers. 

An incident causing a blockage at the entrance to the main gates would obstruct JSDF personnel from getting on and off base. An attack on their headquarters or lodging could cause JSDF or police personnel to be greatly distracted and might even invite a second attack on emergency responders. 

Chinese “fishing vessels” frequently ply waters near the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa.

Overseas Chinese and Beijing’s Long Reach

It should not be forgotten that Chinese law requires overseas Chinese to mobilize in a contingency, legally binding Chinese in foreign countries to wage war on their host country, such as Japan. As there are more than 786,000 Chinese in Japan — almost three times the number of JSDF personnel and police combined — this is particularly worrisome.

There are more than 18,000 foreign residents within Okinawa Prefecture alone, not including U.S. military personnel and their dependents. Among them are as many as several thousand Chinese nationals. This approaches the number of JSDF personnel and prefecture police on the island, assuming such personnel could actually be mobilized in time to respond to any disturbances.

There is further concern about the dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of Chinese fishing boats in the waters off Okinawa, many of which serve other purposes such as intelligence gathering and command-and-control functions. 

RELATED: INTERVIEW | Randall Schriver: ‘Not Much Distinction’ Between China’s Navy and Militia Fishing Boats

In a contingency, some of these vessels would be expected to help in the illegal landing or infiltration of paramilitary forces onto some or all of the outer islands, whose police presence is small, or onto Okinawa proper itself. These forces would disrupt government services on the island, telecommunications, or airport and port operations. 

New amphibious capability in the Self Defense Forces

Preserving JSDF Ability to Protect Okinawa

In addition to these disruptions, it is also easy to imagine both runways at Naha being closed due to a crash or other problem by a commercial airline or airlines during a contingency, for example, of a well-planned situation. What if a Chinese airline developed “engine trouble” as it was about to take off on the older of the two runways closest to the terminal building at Naha International Airport and became “stuck” in the middle of the 3,000-meter runway? Incidentally, the Air Self-Defense Force is co-located there. 

And, let’s say, moments after, a second Chinese airliner crashed upon landing on the second runway, a 2,700-meter airstrip that opened only on March 26, 2020, and was built 1.3 kilometers offshore. (The new runway, by the way, was designed to replicate the 2,740-meter strategic airstrip of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which was set to be relocated and closed between 2001 and 2003). 

Of course, this incident would not be coincidental. It would be intentional and, of course, inhumane. However, the Chinese government would have no problem sacrificing the passengers of the crashed flight, whether they are Chinese nationals or Japanese and third country nationals.

In a matter of moments, the Southwestern Air Defense Force, including the 9th Air Wing and related units, would be grounded — without a shot or a missile having been fired in anger by the Chinese. The JASDF would not be able to initially scramble against or engage with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force over the Senkaku Islands, or even do reconnaissance. Valuable time would be lost as China advanced its agenda to seize the Senkakus by establishing round-the-clock air and then sea supremacy.

A similar situation might happen at Naha Port or some of the other harbors nearby. A commercial ship may develop problems, blocking the way in or out of or access to a pier. “Pacifist” leftist labor unions similarly may decide not to assist in the loading or unloading of a vessel, arguing it would be contributing to the war effort.

As things heated up, not only would anti-base forces act up and seek to sabotage base operations calling for “no more war,” but likely the Okinawa media, which is closely aligned to these groups, would take up their call. Even worse, the media might not report on the activities of the Chinese, employing their oft-used “freedom not to report” doctrine when the local media does not wish to write about things inconvenient to their narrative or interests.

Moreover, the Ryukyu Independence movement would likely demand that Japan and the United States not use bases in Okinawa. As expert Nakamura points out in his many works and speeches, the independence movement would likely simultaneously appeal to the United Nations to criticize Japan and the United States. With China a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, debate there could get very ugly, especially if these activists call upon China to help them.

U.S. Military Drill at Okinawa

Direct Threats to the Defenders

Domestic saboteurs — whether from the anti-base forces, independence movement, or both — could try to cut power, water, communications on or to the bases, either from the outside, or through individuals among the labor unions working on base. Moreover, they might report on the movement of Japanese and U.S. aircraft and personnel, as they do already today. Photographers outside will take and send pictures of the increased activity on the bases, particularly of the air squadrons.

Similarly, saboteurs, foreign or domestic, could easily block traffic at key locations or all locations by having a stalled vehicle block roadways. Even worse, they could create a multi-vehicle accident on the roadways, including the expressway running north-south. Traffic is normally heavy in Okinawa. In a crisis situation, such as during a tsunami warning such as the one after the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, it can be downright horrible. 

Similarly, disruptors could also shut down traffic signals altogether, causing utter chaos on the roadway. Likewise, these individuals or groups could choose to target U.S. vehicles — military, government, or private — all of which are easily identified. In the case of personal vehicles, the ubiquitous “Y” plate makes them easy targets. 

Saboteurs may even seek to attack the homes of U.S. personnel living off-base, most of which have long been identified either by license plates outside the home or building design, or from insider information obtained from realtors.

Grabbing Global Attention

Riots by Chinese “tourists” in American Village between MCAS Futenma and Kadena Air Base and adjacent to other U.S. facilities with schools and a large number of dependent residents could easily take place. This would overwhelm the capacity of the local police. It is likely the base military police would become involved in helping to respond, especially if U.S. personnel have been the victims. A clash between U.S. military police and Chinese “tourists” would feed into Chinese propaganda and make international news. 

Moreover, depending on the timing, Chinese planners could seek to launch an attack when important individuals — such as government representatives or U.S. military leaders — are away from Okinawa. The latter are supposed to practice OpSec (operational security) about their travels, but their schedules tend to be widely known or surmised, in part based on the bilateral and multilateral exercise tempo. 

Japanese officials are often not good at delegating authority and can be very hierarchical as well as stove-piped. Experience suggests they do not do well in a crisis. Their underlings do worse and become institutionally paralyzed.

What’s more, the holidays and PSC (permanent change of station) season for both U.S. and Japanese forces are also times of low readiness and might be chosen by Japan’s enemies to strike.

Chinese Coast Guard under Chinese military command plys waters off Okinawa’s Senkaku Islands

The Senkaku-Okinawa Suicide Scenario

Depending on the timing, the Chinese might not even have to worry much about a U.S. response. This is because the United States, working with the Japanese government, would have moved the vital functions of MCAS Futenma to the unusable Camp Schwab. 

I write “unusable” because the two airstrips at Camp Schwab are both too short to support normal air operations. This is why I have long opposed the relocation of Futenma, and why the second runway at Naha — whose length matches Futenma’s — had to be built. 

However, as we just saw in the aforementioned description, Naha Airport could be temporarily closed in a Senkakus crisis, as civilian operations have priority over the military. And an accident, so to speak, could necessitate its closure. 

This is why the relocation of the functions of Futenma to Henoko and the closure of Futenma represent a case of national suicide for Japan. Futenma’s closure eliminates a planning complication for China and makes it easier for them to wage a kinetic fight.

The United States, in any case, won’t take the lead in a Senkakus fight, as numerous current and former officials have stated on multiple occasions. Japan must take the lead, and the U.S. will support. This is probably meant to push Japan harder in preparing to defend the area, but it also works against U.S. interests. The Senkakus remaining in Japanese hands is in America’s national interest, too, and the current posture causes us not to prepare as best we can.

Yet, with Japan unable to respond quickly, the fight will be over before it really begins. Supporters of Japan in the U.S. will lose hope in Japan, and supporters of the U.S. in Japan will lose hope in the U.S. An unbreachable wedge will likely have been created, leading to the weakening or dissolving the alliance.

The Japanese public, similarly, might become greatly frustrated with its own government, especially if the government failed to protect the country, or to rescue the more than 30,000 Japanese nationals living in Taiwan, not to mention the many more in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Chinese maritime militia vessel impacts Japanese Coast Guard vessel

Why Consider Scenarios

When planning a response, it is necessary to look at the worst that can happen, not the best. You should expect just about everything will go wrong on your side, and everything will go right on the enemy’s side. 

The reality will be somewhere in the middle, but you cannot go into the fight with rose-colored glasses, which tends to be what Japan’s national leaders prefer to wear.

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Author: Robert D. Eldridge, Ph.D.

Dr. Robert D. Eldridge is the Director, Northeast Asia, for the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation. He is also a senior fellow at the Japan Strategic Studies Forum in Tokyo, is the former political advisor for the United States Marine Corps in Japan and the author, translator, or editor of numerous books about U.S.-Japan relations including "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem," "The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute," "Japanese Public Opinion and the War on Terrorism," "Japan's Backroom Politics," "Japan's Postwar Prime Ministers," "Japan's Military Power," "The Japan Self-Defense Forces Law," "Search for Legitimacy," and "An Inoffensive Rearmament."