After having endured several nasty episodes of criminality by U.S. servicemen on its citizens, many residents want the base gone entirely.
With diplomatic stakes high, the governor of Okinawa approved a measure on Friday that will allow the relocation of a controversial U.S. Marine base — infamous locally for crimes committed by U.S. serviceman that include rape and gang rape — to another part of the strategic island.
Despite overwhelming sentiment from the island’s 1.4 million people who wanted the base gone entirely, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima signed off on landfill work that will allow a new runway to be built in a different Okinawa district.
In 2002, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant was convicted of raping a Japanese woman in a parking lot on the island. And in 2012, three U.S. servicemen were arrested in connection with rapes in Okinawa. Media coverage of the cases brought pressure on the Japanese government to review its agreement with the U.S. about handling criminal cases in Japan involving the American military.
About half of all U.S. military personnel in Japan are stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which hosts Marine MV-22 Ospreys and other aviation assets.
The deal in Okinawa involves creating a new landfill to be turned into a runway, with the current base closing all operations within five years, according to an article by Stars and Stripes newspaper. The current base is situated in a densely populated area. In 2004, a Marine helicopter crashed in the area, and though no one was injured on the ground, it sparked fears of a potential disaster among locals.
Strategic Interest in Japanese Islands
The measure to move the base has forced the Japanese government to become increasingly assertive with the U.S., but the presence of the base serves a useful interest to Japan. With the area’s airspace getting more restless, especially with China’s new “Air Defense Identification Zone,” things in the region are dicey for everyone, not just Japan; though the zone only applies to military aircraft, in theory. But the base in Okinawa serves as a sentinel on guard, helping to ensure U.S. support for Japan’s economic interest in the region.
The East China Sea, where Japan controls several islands, too, is a much larger issue, and this is where the U.S. comes in handy to Japan at times, in leveraging the ongoing issue in the area against China. Okinawa is just as strategic to the Chinese, who test the Japanese military’s ability to respond to Chinese activity in the area.
According to an AP article from May, “The Chinese assertiveness has prompted a rebalancing of forces to the Asia-Pacific region by the U.S., which already maintains Air Force, Marine, Navy and Army bases on Okinawa … ”
Okinawa was occupied by the U.S. from the end of World War II until May 15, 1972. It is a part of the Senkaku islands, part of which the Japanese claimed in 1895. China argues they originally belonged to islands claimed by Taiwan, which is a paramount issue with China.
The U.S. recently tested China’s air defense zone, which were greeted with warnings from Beijing.
American Military Presence Still Questioned
The approximately 18,000 Marines now stationed on Okinawa will drop to about 10,000 once the new base is completed over the next decade. On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released a statement praising the agreement as important to strengthening bilateral relations. He said the deal was “absolutely critical to the United States’ ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.”
The original agreement to move the base was reached in 1996 after an ugly episode involving the gang rape of an Okinawan school girl by American servicemen. The event turned the Okinawan community against not just the U.S. military but Americans at large.
The move may quiet the protests for now, but after roughly 17 years of fighting to have the base closed entirely, many Japanese are loathe to accept an indefinite American military presence there, regardless of the strategic interest of their government. And the residents in the area where the new base will be – Henoko district – are not happy about the situation. The district mayor is already warning of potential protests, citing noise and possible violence.
Pentagon officials understand barriers remain. The Japanese TV network NHK reported that an estimated 2,000 protesters surrounded the Okinawa prefectural government office on Friday, with some protesters entering the building and staging a sit-in.
Washington and Tokyo have to make sure Okinawans remain happy if they want to counter an increasingly antagonistic Chinese military presence in the area surrounding the island.