28.04.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Battle for Okinawa-2

J88535353543Since last November, the conflict has sharply escalated between the central government of Japan and local authorities of Okinawa in connection with the fate of Futemma military air base of the US Marine Corps located on the island. It has highlighted the important features in both the political situation in Japan, and in its relations with its key ally, the US.

A kind of “Battle for Okinawa-2” is unfolding, with the fundamental difference between one of the major battles of the final phase of the war in the Pacific being that today the US is in a position of highly interested, but still an observer.

Actually, the problem in the relations between Tokyo and the government of Okinawa manifested in the late ’90s, when in still active “Guidelines on cooperation in the field of defense” between the armed forces of the United States and Japan there appeared a clause on the need to relocate the said base from the center of Ginowan city.

It is not a bad idea to pay more attention to the origin and development of this very problem. In the summer of 1945, after the capture of the island of Okinawa, in anticipation of much greater battles on the main Japanese islands, the command of the US Air Force rapidly built an airstrip on the edge of the village of Ginowan which at the moment had a population of just over 10 thousand.

Further on two processes started developing simultaneously, which ultimately created the situation described in the once popular novel “Airport”: the base infrastructure was being improved (with the provision of jobs to local residents as well), and the city grew rapidly, witnessing a tenfold population increase. So now the base is located in the very center of the city.

Whatever may have happened in the past, the current Futemma base creates absolutely unsanitary conditions for local residents. During the takeoff and landing of heavy transport helicopters and “convertiplanes”, when the engine is operating at full capacity, in schools located at a distance of hundreds of meters, not only the speech of the teacher is inaudible, but windows and doors vibrate. Not to mention emergency incidents involving aircraft falling on the runway. Fortunately, this is as bad as it got as of now.

In addition, the stay of several thousand foreign troops increases the crime rate in the city. Since 1972, when the Ryukyu Archipelago and its main island of Okinawa were returned to the jurisdiction of the Government of Japan, Ginowan police has reported about six thousand crimes of different kinds (fights, robbery, rapes) involving American soldiers.

It is important to note that the frequent demonstrations by residents for the removal of the base are not so much anti-American as they are aimed against their own central government. For since 1972 the land on which all US military bases in Japan are located has belonged to the Japanese government. The latter provides plots of Japanese land to its key ally for it to use in order to solve shared problems in the field of defense.

In 2006, at the US-Japanese intergovernmental level, it was decided to move Futemma base to an artificial island off the coast near the less populous town of Henoko on the same island of Okinawa.

Being started last year, the preparatory work for the establishment of this island became a new source of problems in the relationship between the Administration of Okinawa prefecture along with the population of the island and the central government of Japan. Because the Okinawans are for Futemma base to be totally removed from the island.

At the same time there is increasing evidence that this (while hypothetical) solution of the problem may become a precedent for future demands for removal of all other US military bases from Okinawa.

Today they occupy about 20% of the island, which may well be used for a variety of economic purposes. For the Okinawans, these and other considerations apparently outweigh the positive aspects of the American military bases’ presence on the island, despite their serving as a source of employment for the local population.

But on Okinawa, which occupies an extremely strategic location, the majority of US forces in Japan are quartered. The factor of their presence in Okinawa makes a significant contribution to the implementation of the US strategy of “forward deployment” for the purpose of the military containment of China which is the main geopolitical opponent of the USA.

At the same time, China is also seen as the main source of threats to national interests and security by Japan. And in recent years, to an ever-increasing degree, this has been the main motive for its commitment to strengthening its political and military alliance with the United States.

Thus, the “obstinacy” of the Okinawans in their confrontation with the central government on the issue of the US military presence on the island directly affects key aspects of both national foreign policy, and the entire system of relations between Japan and the United States.

However, for the most part the Okinawans apparently do not care about considerations of “big politics”. And in this regard they are no different from ordinary people in all other countries.

Meanwhile, the confrontation between local authorities and Tokyo escalated dramatically after the gubernatorial elections in last November, after which Takeshi Onaga, an uncompromising opponent of Futemma base’s continued presence in its territory, was elected to the highest office in Okinawa prefecture.

Here it is worth noting two points. First of all, Onaga’s victory was unconditional, and, secondly, he had the full support of the Communist Party of Japan that is gradually returning to the position of the main opposition party, which it occupied in the 1950s during the acute struggle for the country’s foreign policy forming at the time.

This trend (which takes on importance in the assessment of further development of the situation in Japan) received full confirmation during the latest elections to local authorities held this April. However, the analysis of their results deserves individual consideration.

Since the end of last year a debilitating “tug of war” has been taking place between the central and local governments (with the assistance of the courts) over the question of the construction of an artificial island off the coast of Henoko near Futemma base.

Under various pretexts (including considerations of protection of the truly unique marine flora and fauna in the area of​​the island), the Administration of Okinawa has ordered the initiated works to halt. In response, the central government has nullified these bans. Meanwhile, the date of the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States, long planned for April 28, 2015, is inexorably approaching.

Ten days before that date, Abe held talks with a new governor of Okinawa, the only positive outcome of which was the firm optimistic smile of the Japanese prime minister at the final meeting with journalists. However, the expression on the face of the governor of Okinawa standing next to him testified to the fact that he did not share the optimism of Abe.

If the Prime Minister spoke about the necessity of “understanding” by the population of Okinawa of the “only possible” (that is, the currently implemented) solution to the problem with Futemma base, then Onaga said that “he would never allow [the central government] to build a new base at Henoko”. Of which he asked his highly-ranked interlocutor to inform the American president at their upcoming meeting.

In this regard, Abe can only be sympathized with, because it won’t be all too easy for him in the talks with Barack Obama. Moreover, the question of relocation of Futemma base is not the only problem in relations between the allies in the Asia-Pacific region taking key importance in world politics.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.