Originally Published 2015-06-22 00:00:00 Published on Jun 22, 2015
Disregarding opposition from the local population in Okinawa, Tokyo continues to state that it will go ahead with its current base relocation plan to Henoko. Tokyo and Washington should comprehend that when constructing a military base in a democratic country, the popular will and voices of local citizens should be carefully considered and heard.
On the 70th Anniversary, Abe Govt should rethink US bases relocation plan

June 23, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. This was the last battle of the Pacific War, and also the largest sea-land-air battle in history. The cost was extensive -- over 100,000 Okinawan civilians, 107,000 conscripts and 12,000 Americans perished in this battle.

This anniversary is also a stark reminder that the Okinawan prefecture, which comprises of 0.6 percent of the total Japanese land mass, is still housing 74 percent of all US bases in Japan. It is therefore recommended that before the Government of Japan under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo pushes its new banner that is 'proactive contribution to peace' through 'rule of law' and 'democracy', it should first look internally and take responsibility toward being a proactive contributor to peace and stability amongst its local populations, specifically Okinawa.

Located south of Kyushu, 20 percent of this 100 km long island is covered by US bases. Over the years, a large number of accidents and crimes committed by US military personnel have instilled a sense of fear among locals. The 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three US servicemen greatly intensified the will of the locals to change their fate. However, since then, flip flop politics between Tokyo, Washington and the Okinawan prefectural government have left the issue of the US bases unsolved.

The most prominent political battle is over the relocation of the controversial US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago. Located in the centre of the densly populated Ginowan city, MCAS Futenma puts at risk 100,000 citizens that live around it. Further, if this base is transferred to Henoko, it will cause detrimental damage to the marine ecosystem, not to mention the citizens of Nago.

In 1996, an agreement was reached between Tokyo and Washington to relocate Futenma within Okinawa. However, it was only in 2012, after Abe pledged to inject 300 billion yen into the Okinawan economy every year until 2021, that then Okinawa Governor Nakaima Hirokazu agreed to sign the landfill papers required for the base construction in Henoko. This move cost Nakaima his post as Governor, and demonstrated the grit and determination of the Okinawans to diminish Tokyo's discrimination of smaller geographic fringe areas.

The Okinawa election results portray this anti-base sentiment clearly. Starting in November 2014, anti-base campaigner Onaga Takeshi won the gubernatorial election in a landslide victory. Following this, in December 2015, all four seats in the lower house were once again won by anti-LDP contenders who opposed the construction of a new base. Additionally, the January 2015 Nago mayoral election saw Inamine Sususmu victorious. At the top of his campaign agenda was a vow to remain a staunch opponent of the base relocation issue.

Despite these positive election results, alleviating the base burden is easier said than done. The arguments put forth by Tokyo and Washington for this heavy base burden on Okinawa are many. Washington believes that Okinawa with its ideal location (Tokyo, Taipei, Shanghai and Seoul, Pyongyang, and Beijing are all within a 2000 km radius from Okinawa) is the 'cornerstone of peace and stability in East Asia'. Alongside the US, Tokyo believes that Okinawa's role is crucial for the US-Japan alliance, and that by transferring these bases off the prefecture, Japan would lose its deterrent endowment. With the rise of China, and its assertive behaviour in the East China Sea, the Central Government has stressed this even further. Furthermore claims have been made that Okinawa, which is Japan's poorest prefecture, economically depends on the benefits derived from these US military facilities.

However, these claims are neither logical nor justifiable. Firstly, many believe that Okinawa's location maybe ideal, but the Marine Corps can be deployed anywhere in the Asia-Pacific from Guam, Hawaii and even mainland Japan. Therefore, it is not necessary for them to be stationed in Okinawa. Rather, it is the Japanese government that claims the Marine Corps is necessary to provide "deterrence." Additionally, the Marine Corps does not get involved in battles from the start. As past U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, it is the U.S. Air Force that is first deployed to attack major military bases. Then, aircraft carriers and warships follow. Finally, the Marine Corps appear when the ground battles start.

Secondly, if U.S. military bases are essential to Japan's security, the related burdens should be shared equally by all other 46 prefectures. Opinion polls have showed that much of the mainland is sympathetic to Okinawa's over-stressed burden, yet no other prefecture is willing to house these bases. As this anniversary reminds us, World War II is long over. Okinawa is no longer the captured Ryukyu Kingdom. It is, and has been an integral part of Japan. It is essential for Tokyo to acknowledge and respect this, and treat Okinawa in line with the other prefectures.

With regard to Okinawa's deterrence value, it can be understood that the US marines are not stationed permanently in MCAS Futenma. They rotate within the Western Pacific. Thus, maintaining the base is not necessary to deter an attack on Japan. Even if MCAS Futenma was relocated, the US Kadena air base and Japanese Self-Defense Forces based in Naha would continue their daily efforts to maintain regional defence and stability.

Additionally, Joseph Nye, former US assistant secretary of defence, has spoken about the vulnerabilities of fixed bases to ballistic missile attacks, especially from China. He has emphasized that there should be a reduction in the conventional emphasis on fixed American bases, and rather more emphasis should be put on rotating them. He has also stressed that in order to plan for a continuing strong US - Japan alliance, moving away from the idea of large fixed US bases in Okinawa would be a good long term solution.

Thirdly, contrary to the prevailing belief, Okinawa's economy is not base dependent. The prefectural government in Okinawa argues that the US bases actually serve as a disincentive for growth. Studies have shown that the US forces related revenue went down from 15.5 percent in 1972 to 5.3 percent in 2008.

After taking up his role as Okinawa Governor in December 2014, Onaga has made huge efforts to ensure that the voices of his people are heard. In April 2015, he was finally able to meet with Prime Minister Abe, who had long refused a meeting with him. In May 2015, Onaga visited the US and met with senators as well as officials from the Departments of State and Defence to promote a better understanding of this base issue. Most recently, he met with Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Japan, in Tokyo.

However, despite these efforts, Tokyo continues to state that it will go ahead with its current base relocation plan to Henoko, as it is the only realistic option. As criticism, domestically and globally, grows, Mr Abe's policy is proving to be severely detrimental to Japan's status as a democratic nation. Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii criticised Abe for ignoring the wishes of the Okinawan people and said that it is unthinkable in a democracy for a government to disregard the feelings of local residents on such an important issue.

This decision also displays the submissive attitude of the Japanese government. Morton Halperin, who served as senior negotiator of the US government during the Okinawa reversion of 1972, has spoken about this attitude. He stated that during the reversion he "had to urge the Japanese government to voice their wishes to have Okinawa returned, because they did not do so. It appeared that they were too afraid of being turned down. The attitude of Japanese government seems not to have changed".

It is important for both Tokyo and Washington to comprehend that when constructing a military base in a democratic country, the popular will and voices of local citizens who bear the brunt of the military presence should be carefully considered and heard. If the Japanese government really wants, it can accomplish the will of its citizens, but it must be able to strongly convey this to the US. This 70th anniversary is a good time for the Japanese Government under Abe to look inward, rather than outward.

(Vindu Mai Chotani is a Research Assistant and Prof. K V Kesavan a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.)

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Kiran Sabnis

Kiran Sabnis

Kiran Sabnis Co-Founder &amp: Director 2Dot47 Consulting Pvt. Ltd.

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