ANALYSIS: Okinawa the front line of Japan's defense

August 01, 2012


Okinawa serves as a vital bulwark against China as the giant neighbor presses territorial claims and flexes its military muscle in waters around Japan, according to this year's defense white paper.

By emphasizing the strategic importance of Okinawa, the Defense Ministry apparently seeks to highlight the deterrence power of U.S. military forces stationed in the southernmost prefecture.

It says the U.S. military presence is a "lifeline" for Japan in terms of the Japan-U.S. alliance. The document, released July 31 at a Cabinet meeting, cites the importance of defending the Nansei Islands, which extend some 1,000 kilometers near major sea lanes in a southwesterly direction almost as far as Taiwan.

The Japanese government regards cooperation with U.S. forces stationed in Japan as indispensable in countering China's rapid military buildup and aggressive naval posturing in the Pacific Ocean.

Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told reporters after the release of the white paper that Japan, along with the rest of East Asia, maintains "a certain level of wariness over which direction China will take."

"We want the Japanese people to understand what defense policies the United States is going to take with Japan to deal with the changes that are taking place in East Asia," he added.

In a special section, the white paper gives a rundown of the "dynamic defense capability" that was revealed in the basic defense program of 2010.

"From now on, the idea of dynamic defense capability will be applied to Japan-U.S. defense cooperation," it says, citing closer cooperation between U.S. forces and Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

The steps include an "expansion of joint training," "further consideration of joint use of facilities" and an "expansion of information-sharing, monitoring and reconnaissance activities."

The white paper also painstakingly details steps taken to review the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, which were agreed upon by the two countries in April.

It points out, "It is necessary to reduce the burden of Okinawa while (maintaining) the U.S. strategies that place importance on Asia and the Pacific region."

The passage explains the process under which the transfer to Guam of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa, along with the return to Japan of land south of the sprawling Kadena Air Base, was kept separate from the issue of relocating the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, now in Ginowan.

As for the candidate site for the relocation, the white paper says the Henoko district in Nago, also in Okinawa Prefecture, is the only available site.

The document states in no uncertain terms the geographical importance of Okinawa for Japan because of its proximity to vital sea lanes.

"We sent a message that the military importance of Okinawa, including the ability to defend Okinawa itself, is growing due to the rapid modernization of China's military," a Defense Ministry official said.

For the first time, the white paper came with graphics and explanations titled, "Geopolitical location of Okinawa and the significance and the role of the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa."

The graphics also show routes that Chinese warships have taken to venture into the Pacific Ocean by passing through the Nansei Islands, concluding that "Okinawa is located in a strategically important area."

"The stationing of U.S. forces in Okinawa is contributing greatly to the safety of Japan and the peace and stability of Asia and the Pacific region," it says.

Although the white paper emphasizes the strategic importance of Okinawa, negotiations between Japan and the United States on reducing the burden on Okinawa posed by the massive U.S. military presence there have gone anything but smoothly.

Washington and Tokyo still have their work cut out in deciding the ratio of financial burden to be shouldered by each country in relation to the establishment of training grounds in Guam or nearby Northern Mariana Islands. This is something that must be hammered out by year-end.

They must also decide before the year is up on the return of lands south of the Kadena base to Japan.

However, a senior official of the Defense Ministry, citing vehement local opposition to the planned deployment of Osprey transport aircraft to Japan and weak political leadership in Tokyo, said, "It is doubtful that we will be able to reach a decision by year-end."

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba has said the Osprey will contribute to "improved deterrence power."

But Okinawans are not buying that line. They have serious reservations about the Osprey because of recent accidents overseas and the symbolism of maintaining U.S. military might in their part of Japan.

All this leaves Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda grappling to find solutions to maintain a strong U.S. deterrence power while reducing the burdens on Okinawa.

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