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Politics & Security

Okinawa Bases: A Proposal to Reduce the Burden 

Sole use of Okinawa bases by the US military shows lack of integration with the SDF. That must change to defend against the threat of Chinese aggression.

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Okinawa
Henoko coastal area, Nago City, Okinawa Prefecture, where the relocation work of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is underway. Photo on December 12, 2022 (© Kyodo News)

Okinawa's strategic significance has never been greater. And considering the role that the island would play in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan ー only 111 kilometers away from the jurisdiction of Okinawa ー the strategic value is obvious.

If a violent seizure of the prospering self-governed democracy is executed by China ー an option which Chinese President Xi Jinping refuses to dispel ー the potential outcome would be cataclysmic. It would certainly tank the global economy, which is highly dependent on advanced semiconductors manufactured in Taiwan and used in basically every high tech and high value added product. 

A RAND corporation study estimates that a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan would harm the two largest economies in the world. China's GDP would contract up to 35%, while the US GDP would contract at most 10%. It is a scenario that would almost certainly invoke an economic calamity. 

Burden on Okinawa, Impact on Japan

For Japan such a contingency would be a particularly momentous incident. Should there be an armed conflict in the area surrounding Taiwan, the conflict zone would surely include the Japanese sea lanes. Approximately 90% of Japan's oil resources come through these maritime lanes of commerce. 

Japan is highly dependent upon energy supplies imported from abroad. An armed conflict in the region would worsen unquestionably affect the lives of Japanese citizens. 

In that regard, the presence of United States military bases in Okinawa provides a crucial deterrent not only for Japan but for the region and the world. They function as a check against China's growing ambitions

Denny Tamaki Okinawa
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki (second from left) and others appeal at a rally before the first oral argument in the Henoko military base lawsuit. December 1, 2022 in Naha City (©Kyodo)

However, while US bases are expected to play such a role, the local Okinawa government is becoming less cooperative with the central government. In some respects the reasons are understandable.

The outcry that the Okinawans have conveyed through consecutive elections underscores their frustration, and even a sense of resignation towards their own government. Three times in a row, Okinawans have elected a governor who argues for decreasing the number of bases. At the same time, the governor refuses to greenlight the construction of a new base in Henoko.

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Is Henoko the Only Option on Okinawa?

The central government’s insistence that the base being constructed in Henoko is the "only option" fails to explain why 70% of US bases in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. Moreover, they are used exclusively by the US military. 

The prefecture continues to face the same military infrastructure that existed during the US occupation of Okinawa. That occupation lasted decades longer than the rest of Japan: from 1945 to 1972. Understandably, it brings up difficult memories for Okinawans.

To the credit of the Japanese government, they have made efforts to alleviate the burden felt by the Okinawans. Since the reversion of Okinawa, the percentage of ground in Okinawa occupied by bases dedicated to the US military has declined by 48%, according to the Ministry of Defense. 

However, the government's incremental efforts have proven inadequate. They have not convinced the people of Okinawa that their voices are being heard. This failure could be fatal for Japan's security and preparedness against an outbreak of war over Taiwan. Thus, the national government needs to implement a plan clearly showing Okinawans that it actually cares about their concerns. 

Okinawa
13th Edition Japan-US Security Joint Training Exercises

A Proposal for Consideration

As a possible solution I propose the elimination of all US bases under the sole jurisdiction of the US military. However, this does not mean that all US bases would be physically relocated from Okinawa. It means that all bases dedicated to the US military would be converted to be joint bases. They would thereafter be used by both the US military and Japan's Self-Defense Force (JSDF) 

Is this a radical idea? 

"It is far from," says Dr Robert D Eldridge. He is one of the foremost experts on the Base issue in Japan. He is also a longtime proponent for the increase of the joint use of US bases. 

Eldridge's advocating for joint usage goes back two decades. On April 11, 2001, Dr Eldridge stated his case for joint use of US bases in an article in the Nihon Kezai Shimbun. He not only backed a study published the previous year by a group of bipartisan Japan experts in the United States. He went even further. The study argued that "The US and Japan should strive for greater jointness in the use of facilities."  

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Among other things, Dr Eldridge's proposed joint use would make it easier for local residents of Okinawa to access facilities available on the US bases. This way, the perception of local benefits could also begin to change.

Although his proposal has not been implemented, ironically, his argument continues to be seen as noble. The points he makes continue to reflect the rigid debate on the Okinawa base issue within Japan.

Ending the Perception of Continuing Occupation

In fact, across Japan joint use has been a common theme of operations. Dr Eldridge finds fault with the Japanese government's reluctance to take joint responsibility, caused by political and budgetary reasons. However, had it been proactive, the problem of the disproportionately high rate of solely US-used bases in Okinawa would be far more balanced. 

In his article twenty years ago, Dr Eldridge made the following claim. "If Japan becomes a more active partner, the US will further reduce its presence in Okinawa in consultation with the Japanese government," he analyzed. The politics of the situation are revealed, however, by the government’s staunch refusal to move forward in past years. To this day, the Ground Self-Defense Force are not authorized to jointly use Camp Schwab with the US Marine Corps. 

It seems likely that if the Japanese government had exercised courage in the past, these US bases would already be jointly used. It just makes sense. 

In fairness, the government would have had to defy the public's general reluctance to assume more responsibility on security matters. It would also have had to bolster its spending to finance the change. That reluctance has begun to change, however.. 

Pursuing joint use of the bases now would send a strong message that the Japanese government is committed to standing up for the people in Okinawa. And it would wipe away the illusion that Okinawa is under continued occupation by a foreign country. 

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Senkaku defense panel defense boost Japan China maritime
The largest China Coast Guard vessel yet, equipped with a 76mm gun, was caught navigating the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in November 2022. (provided by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters)

Seamlessly Defending Okinawa and All of Japan 

Also, the joint use of bases is necessary ー even inevitable. That is, if the goal is for the US and Japan to cooperate seamlessly on defense. 

Dr Eldridge has implied that the remaining bases solely used by the US military are evidence that US and Japan are not fully integrated. Unless integration improves, Okinawa cannot effectively operate as a bulwark against the threat of Chinese aggression.

"The US-Japan relationship/alliance is like a marriage," he says. "Married couples should live together, not apart. Because the two do not live together, the relationship is not as trusting as it could be. And the alliance is not as strong as it should be," Eldridge explains.

Joint usage of military bases is long overdue. If Japan wants to claim the hearts and minds of the Okinawans and face the challenge imposed by China, joint use is a must. 

However, this requires the government to show its will and overcome the obstacles. Failure to do so would render it difficult to enhance and defend Okinawa, which is of utmost value and strategic significance.

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Author: Jio Kamata

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