(Ryukyu Shimpo: February 1, 2016 – p. 1 & 3)
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani stressed the necessity of relocating the U.S. Marines Futenma Air Station to Henoko, Nago, when he met with Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga for the first time at the prefectural office in May 2015.
To emphasize the importance of the presence of the U.S. Marines Corps in the prefecture, Nakatani gave the example of Chinese naval vessels’ incursions into the waters around the Senkaku Islands. Though he explained that this situation is currently being handled by the Japanese side alone, he noted: “The Self-Defense Forces and the Japan Coast Guard are having a hard time.”
“Japan and the U.S. reaffirmed their commitment to the Senkaku issue under the bilateral security treaty at a meeting of the defense ministers held recently,” he added. “Thus, Okinawa is of strategic importance.” His remarks could be interpreted to mean that if tensions over the Senkakus escalate further, the U.S. forces will immediately dispatch the Marines to retake the islands.
There is a scenario posted online indicating that if a contingency were to arise in the Senkakus, the U.S. Marines would rush there to defeat the Chinese military and retake the islands. This explains why the Marines’ continued presence in Okinawa is needed.
Meanwhile, the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, which were revised in April 2015, lay out responses that Japan will take to counter ground attacks.
“The SDF have primary responsibility for conducting operations to prevent and repel ground attacks, including those on islands. If the need arises, the SDF will conduct operations to retake an island.”
According to the guidelines, the SDF would have “primary responsibility” if the Senkakus came under an armed attack by a third country. The guidelines do not presume the involvement of the U.S. forces in a military attack from the initial stage. Rather, they envisage that the U.S. forces “would conduct operations to support and supplement (the SDF operations).”
In April 2013, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, set up by the U.S. Senate, convened a public hearing under the theme, “China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas.” Those who were invited to give testimony included Michael McDevitt, senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis. The former rear admiral of the U.S. Navy is a national security expert on the Asia-Pacific region and oversaw policymaking regarding Asia at the Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.
Asked about the territorial dispute over the Senkakus between Japan and China, McDevitt referred to official accounts that the U.S. provided that the islands are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty and said: “The U.S. is responsible for helping Japan defend these islands.”
But at the same time, McDevitt discussed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech delivered in Washington two month before. According to him, Abe had said “Japan has no intention of asking the U.S. side to do this or that over the Senkakus. We have protected our land and will do so in the future.” Emphasizing this point, he said, “The White House should make it clear that Japan will play a major role in the defense of the Senkakus.”
“The Senkakus are uninhabited and have no strategic importance or intrinsic value to the U.S.,” he said blatantly. “Washington should do its best to avoid an armed conflict with the Chinese military over the uninhabited, small islands.”
The upgraded bilateral defense cooperation guidelines only identify the U.S. role in Japan’s island defense as extending “support” to the SDF. The U.S. government does not specify the details of support, leaving its role vague. As specific examples of support, McDevitt raised “surveillance, provision of supplies and technical guidance.”
With regard to “deterrence,” the Japanese government defines it as a “function to dissuade from launching an invasion through the clear acknowledgement that the act would cause unendurable damage.”
Kyoji Yanagisawa, a former Ministry of Defense official and assistant deputy chief cabinet secretary, points out that the Marines do “not serve as deterrence.” His argument is that “the Ground Self-Defense Force plays a major part in protecting Japan’s remote islands, and the role of the U.S. forces is limited to support. Though the Japanese government stresses the Marines’ presence in Okinawa is necessary as they serve as deterrence, the U.S. would not dispatch the Marines to help Japan protect its remote islands.”
Tokyo applauded the affirmation by Japan and the U.S. that the Senkakus are covered by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty. “We have elicited a pledge from the U.S.to support Japan,” said a senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official.
Article 5 stipulates that if either Japan or the U.S. comes under an armed attack in areas under the administration of Japan, “it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Under the U.S. constitutional processes, the President needs to obtain congressional approval to use force. Would the President actually seek congressional approval to wage a war with China, another superpower like the U.S., if a contingency arose over a uninhabited small island of the other country? Apparently, it would take the U.S. a considerable amount of time to make that kind of political decision.
“It does not mean there is zero possibility of the U.S sending Marines to the Senkakus,” said an official from a prefectural office handling issues concerning construction of a replacement facility in Henoko. “But they would be sent there only after the Japan Coast Guard and the SDF had acted to respond to a contingency and the Japanese government had held lengthy diplomatic negotiations.”
Then Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto mentioned in 2012 that a contingency in the Senkakus would be first dealt with by the Japan Coast Guard and the GSDF, clearly explaining that “the U.S. forces are not in the position to immediately respond to a situation concerning the security of the Senkakus.”
Okinawa Prefecture emphasizes that the Senkakus do not provide a good reason to relocate the Futenma facility within the prefecture. “The government explains that the relocation of Futenma outside the prefecture would cause a delay of several hours in responding to a situation in the Senkakus (as this requires sending a plane from the mainland) and argues this would be detrimental [to Japan’s security], but based on an actual scenario, a delay of several hours would not undermine Japan’s response capabilities.”
At a joint press conference with Abe held in Tokyo in April 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama noted that the bilateral security treaty covers the Senkakus. At the same time, it was revealed to the public that he had conveyed the Japanese side that “I stressed the importance of a peaceful resolution on this matter. It would be a serious mistake to allow tensions to continue to escalate.”
Asked by a U.S. reporter if the U.S. would consider using force if China invaded these islands, Obama answered in an irritated tone: “Does the U.S. have to wage war every time another country violates an international law or rule. No, that’s not the way it is.” (Slightly abridged)