Denny Tamaki was pronounced as the new governor of Okinawa after a divisive campaign that remained singularly focused on the presence of American military bases in the prefecture. The results affect the future of the prefecture’s more than 150 islands in the East China Sea and have an impact felt throughout Japan.
Known to draw his support base from a coalition comprising the traditional anti-U.S. base and military activists, workers’ unions, and local small and medium business people, Tamaki is likely to carry forward a political agenda much the same as his predecessor, Takeshi Onega. His prime focus is expected to be on challenging the presence of American bases in Okinawa.
This includes a call for a “radical redistribution” — implying reduction — of United States forces to other parts of Japan and abroad. It also includes opposition to the relocation of the Futenma U.S. Marine Corps Air Station from its current location in the southern Okinawa city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago, located in the central part of the prefecture.
Okinawa is home to nearly half of the 54,000 American troops stationed in Japan. It houses the largest U.S. airbase in the Indo–Pacific region.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to revitalize the economy of Okinawa and lessen the burden of U.S. bases on the prefecture. However, the larger strategic realities that concurrently confront Japan’s national security interests today cannot be considered distinct from Okinawa’s own future and identity.
Political ideologies and camps, coupled with Okinawan identity at large, stand at a delicate crossroads. The dilemma confronts the very fundamentals of Japan’s national security and its military and security alliance with the United States. This includes the security of the critical 440 kilometers distance between Okinawa and Senkaku Islands, for which China has stepped up its quest.
Situation Calls for Robust U.S.-Japan Alliance
A very thin line divides domestic politics in Japan with its overall strategic thinking, debates on defense policy, and balance of regional military power.
Revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was perhaps the most characteristic feat achieved by Nobusuke Kishi when he took over as prime minister in 1957. It was considered instrumental in maintaining Japan’s security within the context of a rapidly changing Asia.
More specifically, Article 6 of the 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty entitles the U.S. to station troops in Japan for “the purpose of contributing to the security of Japan and the maintenance of international peace and security in the Far East.”
Almost six decades later, regional security realities in the East China Sea have changed drastically and are pushing Japan towards reforms that would ensure greater self-reliance. The efforts include enhanced legislative foundations for Japan’s security to enable it to provide seamless responses for all levels of crises.
Challenges to the rule of international law, coercive claims, and forceful attempts to unilaterally change status quo were primary drivers for Nobusuke Kishi to advocate repealing Article 9. The hope then, too, was to empower Japan to take on greater responsibility and self-reliance for its defense.
Still, today, while amendment of the Constitutional Revision Referendum Law remains the single most important institutional change required to recraft Japan’s security affairs, Tokyo’s political spectrum remains widely divided on issues concerning the U.S. military and Japan’s Self Defense Forces.
To the political and military realist, the situation as it stands today calls for a robust U.S.-Japan alliance. Such is necessary to provide credible deterrence amid a flood of strategic activity in the East China Sea which inherently threatens regional peace, stability, and security.
Contemporary Strategic Realities
The annual Pentagon report, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” submitted in May 2018 to the United States Congress underscores the significance of the East China Sea, including Japan, and China’s overlapping claims on both the continental shelves and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Beijing is globally known to be obscure about its own military advancement and transformation under its four-decade-long military modernization program aimed at making the PLA a “world-class” military by 2049. To back its grandiose military mission, Chinese defense spending figures are startling — likely to make it Asia-Pacific’s largest military spender.
China maintains persistent coast guard (CCG) presence and aircraft patrols near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. In 2017, Beijing’s presence around the Senkaku Islands usually included four CCG ships entering within 12 nautical miles (NM) of the islands on an average of once every 10 days using multiple CCG ships, as confirmed in the latest Pentagon report.
The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are not the only area at risk from China's aggressive persistence. In the Sea of Japan in August 2016, two PLA Navy H-6 bombers accompanied by a Y-8 AEW&C aircraft conducted the first PLA flights off that region of western Japan. In January 2017, they flew the same route, this time with six bombers supported by two reconnaissance aircraft.
In August 2017, the PLAAF further expanded the PLA’s operating area by sending six PLAAF H-6K bombers through the Miyako Strait, and for the first time, turned north to fly east of Okinawa and as far north as the Kii Peninsula.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, these flight trajectories demonstrate a maturing capability for H-6K bombers to conduct off-axis strikes against facilities of the U.S. and its allies in the region. Previously demonstrated flight endurance of the PLAAF H-6K suggest future Chinese missions could even fly around Japan and along the Philippines’ coast by means of a widened area for operations.
The PLA’s missile force fields multiple missiles capable of projecting power beyond the region. Among these are the CSS-5 Mod-5 ASBM (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile), which has a range of 1,500 kilometers, and maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRV) to challenge its opponents' ballistic missile defenses.
China also deploys the land-attack CSS-5 Mod 4, placing potential targets on Okinawa and the main Japanese islands at great risk. The DF-26 IRBM has a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers and is capable of conducting precision strikes against ground and ship targets, potentially threatening U.S. land and sea-based forces as far away as Guam – situated 2,279 kilometers away from Okinawa Prefecture.
The entry of PLA submarines inside Japan’s contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands is a unilateral attempt by China to change the status quo in and around the Senkakus.
The intrusions of Chinese vessels into Japan’s territorial seas, together with its sustained presence and periodic intrusions of Chinese coast guard vessels in Japan’s contiguous zone, reaffirm Beijing’s political will to up the ante in the name of alleged “sovereignty.”
Core of Japan’s Positioning in the East China Sea
Any potential reconsideration on the Okinawa bases is likely to have a cascading effect on the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s national security strategy at large. The domestic political opposition as well as the processes to consider the future of these bases need to bear in mind that Okinawa is not merely a peripheral Japanese prefecture, but the lynchpin of Japan’s strategic positioning in the East China Sea.
Domestic politics within Okinawa should not be permitted to compromise Japan’s national security and provide China with that window. Moreover, Governor Tamaki needs to be cognizant that, while he did secure 55% of the vote in the gubernatorial contest, 44% of Okinawan voters cast ballots in opposition to his ideology and vision for Okinawa.
After all, it cannot be denied that the presence of the U.S. military remains the pivot for the defense of Japan. Additionally, it serves as a security balancer for the region.
The strategic placement of Japan and its islands influences the security of the entire Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the U.S. presence and flexibility for operations from Okinawa are immensely critical in the face of the impending debate on the regional balance of power.
China’s comprehensive national power is growing exponentially. The realist tendencies that constitute the root of Chinese strategic culture are seemingly shaping China’s foreign and security policies in East Asia.
The case of Okinawa in particular, and Japan at large, remains the idyllic example of a state’s foreign and security policy being influenced and shaped by global and domestic political drivers. The concentration of U.S. bases in Okinawa needs to be discussed in contextual reference to such factors, including the ever-growing military challenge emanating out of China and its military.
The oft-repeated argument heard of late that any regional military confrontation will target the Okinawans is a precarious one. Rather, Japan’s overall national security and integrity needs to be addressed as a whole, and not in terms of a single unit belonging to one particular prefecture.
The question arises: will Governor Tamaki be able to guarantee the security of Okinawa on his own, in the event of Japan’s overall national security and integrity being placed under threat?
Notwithstanding the debates on competing versions of security policy, state identity, and clashing political visions among domestic constituencies with divergent views, the overarching principle that should prevail is the territorial integrity and security of the nation of Japan.
Okinawa will remain the fulcrum of Japan’s geographical periphery and the core of its defense and security strategy on the East Asian drawing board.
Author: Monika Chansoria