(Ryukyu Shimpo: February 8, 2016 – p. 3)
In May 2015, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani stressed the need to relocate the U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko when he spoke to reporters after meeting with Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, an opponent of the relocation plan.
“It is important not to create a power vacuum. The U.S. bases need to be in Japan to provide deterrence,” the minister said.
But many people in Nago and the entire prefecture are not demanding that all the U.S. forces in Japan, including Okinawa, be immediately pulled out. They want the relocation plan within the prefecture to be reviewed. There is no denying that the relocation issue is being discussed based on the scenario that “China would invade if the U.S. forces withdrew from Okinawa.”
The view of China as a threat is often discussed in connection with the relocation issue. The Chinese military attaches great importance to the strengthening of its missile capabilities and naval power. Kadena Air Base and Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka, which are the main bases for the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy in Japan, respectively, are far better equipped to provide deterrence than the Futenma airfield, a helicopter base for transporting ground units. Even if the Futenma base were closed, it would not create a military vacuum in Okinawa.
Even on the Internet, the Philippines’ territorial row with China over Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea following the U.S. forces’ pullout from the Philippines in 1992 is frequently cited as an example of why the U.S. bases are needed in Okinawa.
The U.S. forces completely withdrew from the Philippines by closing Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992. The relocation of the Futenma base cannot be simply compared with this military withdrawal. The Okinawa government claims that the relocation of the Futenma air base to the Japanese mainland should be considered as an alternative. If that option were adopted, it would mean the U.S. Marines’ helicopter unit would not be removed from Japan. This makes the Futenma issue different from the example of the Philippines.
What would happen if the Futenma airfield were removed from Okinawa? How much would that contribute to reducing the base-hosting burden?
According to studies by Okinawa International University Professor Manabu Sato, Kadena Air Base is 1.2 times bigger than the combined area of the six main U.S. bases outside the prefecture – Yokota, Atsugi, Misawa, Yokosuka, Sasebo and Iwakuni.
“Even if the Futenma air base were closed, Okinawa’s burden would still be beyond a reasonable share,” he said. “Okinawa has every right to demand a reduction in its burden.”
James Steinberg, who served as Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama administration, and Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, referred to Kadena Air Base as one of the most valuable bases that the U.S. forces operate both at home and abroad in their co-authored publication “Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty- First Century.”
According to the book, the U.S. Air Force would have to deploy four to five carrier battle groups in the Asia-Pacific region if Kadena ceased to function. In such a case, it would cost “at least 250 billion dollars (about 30 trillion yen) a year.”
This means that Okinawa provides national security equivalent to 30 trillion yen a year.
“The roles and functions of each U.S. military unit in Okinawa are not well understood even among local people,” said Sato. “People outside the prefecture just generalize these units as ‘U.S. forces’ and some people don’t even know about the existence of the Kadena base.”
Sato stressed the need to disseminate information from Okinawa more effectively by arguing that “people who want to keep the U.S. forces in Okinawa are taking advantage of this perception and purposely using the phrase ‘withdrawal of U.S. forces’ to gloss over the true nature of the Futenma issue.” (Slightly abridged)