Connect with us

Politics & Security

Okinawa Is Still Strategically Important

The importance of Okinawa is about deterrence. Demonstrate you're a serious military with lots of partners and an enemy is less likely to try his luck with you.



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 isn't in the news nearly as much as it was some year's back, when most reporting focused on noisy protest groups demanding United States' military forces leave. The Japanese government sometimes even seemed to wish the Americans might go away and only return when needed. 

Times have changed. Nowadays the reporting is mostly on the China threat. And Tokyo is presumably glad the Americans are still around on Okinawa. 

It never hurts to remember why US forces are in Okinawa.

Map of Okinawa, showing important cities and features including US military bases at Futenma and Henoko and the Senkaku Islands.

What is the strategic importance of Okinawa? 

In military matters, geography is supremely important.  Okinawa (for convenience sake, referring to the entire Ryukyu Island chain and not just the main island of Okinawa) is "key strategic geography" by virtue of its location.  Okinawa sits in between the southern Japan mainland, Taiwan, and China. And it is also close to the Korean Peninsula.  

Whoever occupies Okinawa has an advantage. For US forces, Okinawa bases allow a "forward presence" that simplifies air, sea, and ground operations in the region. And this region is where today's "great power rivalry" is playing out most intensely. Some argue that a fight with China is likely to break out in this neighborhood.

Okinawa bases facilitate offensive military operations, of course. But they are also useful defensively, although the difference between offensive and defensive operations is often a matter of interpretation.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army has to tread carefully if it moves in the East China Sea. And even a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be vulnerable to US and Japanese forces operating out of Okinawa. Emplacing anti-ship missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems on Okinawa's islands would also "close off" large areas of ocean to the Chinese Navy and Air Force, and could also "range" parts of Taiwan.

Also, Okinawa is a useful platform for surveillance and intelligence collection activities that are an indispensable part of military operations.


Looking farther afield, Okinawa bases also allow the Americans to operate more easily throughout the entire Western Pacific and beyond. The US Marine-led response to the 2015 Nepal Earthquake in fact was launched from Okinawa. Also, Okinawan bases are available in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.

China National Security Strategy
China televises the firing of ballistic missiles into "training" areas around Taiwan and in Japan's EEZ in Okinawa Prefecture. August 4, 2022. Photo from Weibo.

China knows the answer.

China is well aware of Okinawa's importance to Japan's defense – and forward basing in particular. And it would like United States (and Japanese forces) gone.

Consider how China has built artificial islands and established military bases in the South China Sea. This "extends forward" People's Liberation Army operating capabilities. It allows the PLA to dominate or control sea and airspace much farther from the Chinese mainland than would be the case without the islands. Okinawa provides similar advantages to whoever holds them. 

And don't forget the political significance of Japan defending its territory against Chinese aggression. China has stated its intentions to eventually "retake" Okinawa (the Ryukyus) and not just the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo is demonstrating political will, and the Japanese and the Americans joining for mutual defense of Japanese territory and to ward off Chinese expansion, is a clear sign of political determination by the world's two major democracies. 

How might US forces on Okinawa be used in the case of a conflict with China over, say Taiwan?

Potentially as launch points for attack by air and naval forces against Chinese forces. But also for the Marines and Army when employing long range precision weapons, air and missile defense systems. This will help prevent Chinese forces from operating in the area. US air forces (and to a lesser extent naval forces) operating from Okinawa are also part of the defensive web. 

Don't forget that Okinawa is just as important to Japan and Japanese forces as it is to American forces. And for the same reasons. But the Americans are the ones that have the real capability to operate farther afield against the PLA.

Okinawan-based forces might also be employed to support the US presence in the Philippines, among other places in the region, as supporting elements in the event of a Taiwan fight.

US Military Drills were ongoing in 2017 at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

Are the Okinawa bases losing relevance in the new age of modern warfare?

Weapons and hardware are changing, but war itself hasn't changed all that much. Consider the Ukraine war. It looks a lot like "old-fashioned" war in many respects.

But aren't the bases sitting ducks for missile attacks? 

Sort of.  But sort of not. Any base anywhere is vulnerable to Chinese missile attack - even Guam, Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and maybe even Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. The same of course applies to Chinese military bases. 

So it's important to "harden" your bases as much as possible ー both physically, say with concrete aircraft shelters and also with proper missile defenses and other defense measures. But you also want to be able to hammer the enemy just as hard, or harder, so he knows he will receive as much or more than he delivers.


What's the alternative? Pull back to Colorado and burrow into the Rocky Mountains?

US Marines
Japanese Self-Defense Force base under development at Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture.

Keep in mind as well the distinction between military operations before a war starts and military operations after the war starts. During peacetime a military does all sorts of things to train, exercise, prepare and establish its position. And also things like humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR) activities.  

Demonstrate you're a serious military and capable of fighting ー and positioned in a number of different places ー and with a lot of "allies" or "partners" and an enemy is less likely to try his luck with you. And he might also worry about having to take on the entire might (military, economic, political) of the USA and its friends. 

All this adds to deterrence ー and if things go right, prevents a war in the first place.

Once the shooting starts, everything is different.  And that's when you'll know if you did what was necessary in peacetime.

Does the US need to rethink its Pacific deployments to better contain China?

Yes, and it is doing so. Major bases of the sort on Okinawa are important and useful. But a military must not put all its eggs in one basket ー as the US has done. The Americans have too few major bases in Asia outside Japan.

The Americans should be operating from many different locations in Asia. Opportunities have recently opened up in the Philippines, and in a few other places such as Palau and Papua New Guinea. Also, facilities in Northern Australia are finally being used to their potential.

But the US military's top leadership squandered 20 years. And it did not do what was necessary to establish access and "'position" itself in as many places as possible in the region.  They even turned down invitations by a number of countries to come and "set up shop."  

To its credit, however, the US military is scrambling to spread itself out. But it's late in the day.


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.