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Okinawa: The U.S. Bases Caught Between Feuding China and Japan

Article illustrative image Partner logo Testing the alliance

NAHA - In mid-September, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Ginowan, a town on the main island of the Japanese Okinawa archipelago. But these were not protests against the Chinese navy presence near the Senkaku Islands, (called Diaoyu by the Chinese), whose sovereignty is disputed between Japan and China. 

The Okinawans were protesting the deployment of American Osprey aircrafts, which take off vertically, and whose reliability has been called into question. A dozen Ospreys had been assigned to the American military base at Futenma, Okinawa, and since September 19, they have been authorized to fly, much to the locals’ discontent.

China and Japan's dispute over the Senkaku islands directly concerns the Okinawans: the Senkaku islands are administered by Ishigaki, one of the Okinawan islands. They do not share the anti-Chinese feelings of central Japan's right-wing.

Behind the flare-up of nationalist feeling on both sides, another question is looming: that of the role of American bases in the defense of Japan and in America's East Asian strategy. "Okinawa is caught between China on one side and the U.S. and Japan on the other,'' says Tomohiro Nagamoto, chief editorial writer of the Okinawa Times.

Before being swallowed up by the Japanese empire in 1879, to become the province of Okinawa, the Ryukyu islands had been a small, prosperous, independent kingdom that paid tribute to both China and Japan. Okinawans have a long common history with China, and they have suffered too much from their annexation by Japan to be easily carried away by the anti-Chinese attitudes of Japanese nationalists. For now, the governor of Okinawa has taken no position on the Japan-China conflict over the Senkaku islands.

In China, anti-Japanese demonstrations have added to the desire of nationalists to raise the stakes. At the end of July, an editorial in the Global Times, which reflects the views of the Chinese communist party, called for Beijing to expand the question of sovereignty over the Senkaku islands to include Okinawa as well: in other words, to contest Japan’s ownership of Okinawa. Perhaps this was intended to raise hopes for independence in Okinawa, where support for separatism is held by only a small minority.

Strategic position

The small, subtropical archipelago of 1.4 million people, a thousand kilometers in length, has had a painful history in the past century. Its strategic position, halfway between the Asian continent and Japan, had once been the source of its wealth, but became the cause of its troubles. Okinawa was the military gate to the south for Japan, and was drawn into all of Japan's wars, from the war against China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 to the war against the United States. Its population suffered terribly before the American invasion (June 1945), both from American bombardment and from the brutality of the Japanese army, which forced local people to defend every inch of the island, and then to commit mass suicide; 142,000 Okinawan civilians died. The United States then occupied the islands until 1972, using them as a rear base for its wars in Korea and Vietnam.

In spite of the restitution of Okinawa to Japan 40 years ago, the U.S. bases have remained, and continue to be used in conflicts, including Afghanistan. Two thirds of the total surface occupied by American bases in Japan and the majority of the 40,000 GIs deployed are in Okinawa, where 20% of the main island is taken up by bases and practice fields. It is a burden, in terms of noise and soldiers' behavior, that would not be tolerated in central Japan.

In spite of a 2006 agreement transferring the Futenma air base, which is in the center of a city, to Henoko, in another part of Okinawa, the Futenma base remains open, provoking the anger of local inhabitants. At the sports field of a primary school next to the runway, the noise of takeoffs and landings is still deafening. "It is the most dangerous airport in the world, and they're adding dangerous airplanes to it -- the Ospreys," says one local.

For more than fifty years, most Okinawans of all political persuasions have been opposed to the bases. In spite of their stubborn opposition, their voices have not been heard.

A crucial pawn

The tension around the Senkakus has only reinforced the strategic importance of Okinawa, as underlined in the last Japanese White Paper on Defense in July 2012. For the United States, which is trying to restore its strength in the region by renewing ties with its Australian, Korean, Japanese and Filipino allies, Okinawa is a crucial pawn in its "great archipelago strategy," which aims to contain Chinese ambition, just as it did during the Cold War. By blocking its straits, Okinawa could close off China's access to the Pacific Ocean.

The territorial dispute between China and Japan is troublesome for Washington, which wants to avoid a frontal collision with Beijing over the issue without appearing to disengage with its ally Japan. The American attitude is ambiguous, if not contradictory. The Senkaku islands are part of the defense space covered under the Japanese-American treaty, but Washington has refused to take a side in the dispute. If the security treaty "covers" Senkaku, the islands are considered Japanese.

Moreover, American troops in Okinawa used one of the Senkaku islands for years as a firing range. Another source of tension is between Japan and South Korea, which are disputing sovereignty over another set of islands, called Takeshima by Japan, and Dokdo by South Korea. This conflict, too, is embarrassing for Washington, as it weakens the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance facing China.

Okinawans are anxious. Chinese and Japanese navy maneuvers near the Senkaku islands, with nationalists on both sides stoking the fires, could lead to military tension, and the islanders could once again find themselves on the front line.

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