(Mainichi: December 13, 2015 – p. 2)
By Kent Calder, director of Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies; translated into Japanese by Muneo Takahashi
The plan to relocate the U.S. forces’ Futenma Air Station (in Ginowan City, Okinawa) to Henoko, Nago City, has been the most exasperating and intractable issue for officials involved with Japan-U.S. relations for nearly 20 years.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto first agreed on the relocation of the Futenma base in spring 1996. I remember seeing bulldozers on the beach in Henoko in spring 1997, soon after I took up my post as special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Yet construction work has still not begun.
I have been involved with this policy process unofficially for many years. I believe that the important thing is to understand the broad-ranging changes that have occurred in Okinawa and the surrounding area in the past 20 years. We must realize the new opportunities for creativity presented by these changes and the extreme importance of arriving at an early solution to the Futenma dispute.
A balanced understanding of Okinawa’s strategic importance and the Okinawan people’s bitter experience 70 years ago should be the starting point of this debate.
While Naha is about 1,500 kilometers from Tokyo, it is only 800 kilometers from Shanghai. Yonaguni Island faces Taiwan. Thanks to the Okinawan islands and its proximity to China, the Philippines, and the ROK, Japan is able to have a political presence in the East China Sea across from China.
On the other hand, even though Kyushu is comparable with Okinawa in geopolitical importance, it has not been utilized adequately and does not possess the defense and transportation infrastructure developed in Okinawa over the past 60 years.
There has been no geopolitical change after the decision to relocate the Futenma base was made, but the socio-economic conditions have changed. Despite the deterioration of its economy, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests and developed long-range ballistic missiles.
Furthermore, China’s economy has tripled in size in the past 10 years. It has become more interdependent with Japan. Chinese visitors to Japan are expected to exceed 5 million this year, making up one-fourth of all foreign tourists. On the other hand, China is obstinately building artificial islands in the South China Sea and turning them into fortresses.
Similar to the situation 20 years ago, the incumbent governor of Okinawa is opposed to Futenma relocation. However, unlike Governor Masahide Ota, Governor Takeshi Onaga is not motivated by vivid personal memories of World War II. He has a pragmatic political background.
Local politics is also very complicated. For example, both the mayors of Ginowan City and Ishigaki City are Liberal Democratic Party supporters who accept a significant role for Okinawa in national defense. Ishigaki, Miyako, and the other nearby islands did not experience devastation during the war, so they are more amenable to taking up a greater defense role than the main island of Okinawa. The development of Internet and transportation has also brought countries closer together.
In light of these changes, I would like to make the following proposals for Okinawa and the Japan-U.S. relationship.
(1) The Japanese and U.S. governments should present a visionary strategy to develop Okinawa as a true regional hub modelled on Singapore. Otherwise, Okinawa will gradually move toward reliance on China.
(2) The strategy to make Okinawa a tariff-free port focusing on technology, transportation, and sustainable development should be executed with an emphasis on strengthening relations with the U.S., Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.
(3) The stalemate in the Futenma relocation issue should be resolved at an early date if only to prevent the deepening of relations between Okinawa and China. This is also important in the geopolitical sense. One option is to set up a UN peace facility on the vacant land after the Futenma airfield is relocated.
(4) The improvement of North Korea’s and China’s military capability highlights the importance of mobility. Henoko is one component, but a control center is indispensable.
(5) There needs to be a greater understanding of the security role of the outlying islands on account of their proximity to Taiwan, China, and the Senkaku Islands, the existing facilities there, and the local people’s relatively positive sentiments.
(6) Cultural and personal relations between Okinawa and the U.S. need to be strengthened. The Okinawa liaison office that opened in Washington last spring will play an important role.
(7) Practical agreements between Okinawa and the U.S., such as the Okinawa-Hawaii agreement on renewable energy, should be encouraged.
Okinawa is indispensable for the role it plays for Japan and for the Japan-U.S. relationship due to its proximity to China and Southeast Asia and the importance of the sea lane through which over 80% of Japan’s energy supply is transported.
Okinawa’s strategic importance is definitely increasing. Interdependence with Asia, including China, is also growing. The key issue relating to Okinawa’s future transcends such issues as the future of the Futenma base or the length of runways in Henoko. We must not turn a blind eye to this fact under any circumstances.