American bases in Okinawa serve to deter Sino-U.S. struggle, expert says

The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Tomohide Murai, an expert on East Asia security, about Okinawa’s importance in national security, on the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What significance does Okinawa have geographically from the viewpoint of national security?

Tomohide Murai: Okinawa sits on the First Island Chain that stretches from the Nansei Islands down to the Philippines. The First Island Chain is what China considers as its defensive line against the United States, and is the frontline of the Sino-U.S. rivalry.

In the event of a Sino-U.S. contingency, China would likely try to send a fleet into the Western Pacific.

Realistically, it would have to go through either the Miyako Strait between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima island, or the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.

There is also the Tsugaru Strait among other places, but it is too narrow for a large aircraft carrier or a submarine to pass through, and the water is too shallow.

Straits can be sealed off using mines. And with monitoring by submarines of both the U.S. Navy and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, the Chinese fleet would find it difficult to pass.

Should a war break out, China would surely try to seize Okinawa to secure access to the Pacific.

This is because of Okinawa’s geography, and has nothing to do with the U.S. bases located there. Accordingly, the logic that Okinawa “will be attacked because of the U.S. bases” is flawed.

Rather, the thinking should be, which would be easier for China to seize, an Okinawa with American bases or one without them?

The Chinese Communist Party is practical. Comparing costs and benefits, it will not act if the former exceeds the latter. If you think about it normally, China would think that having U.S. bases on Okinawa raises the price, therefore making it more difficult to take by force.

Q: In Okinawa, the movement against U.S. bases has strong roots.

A: It is a fact that because of the U.S. bases, Okinawa has suffered a variety of hardships, whether it’s noise pollution, accidents or having to allocate prime real estate.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki is calling on the central government to reduce Okinawa’s share of facilities exclusively for use by U.S. forces to “less than 50%” of the nationwide total.

The question is, based on what? Why 50% and not, say, 30%, or 70%? Rather than merely throwing out a figure, he needs to give a reason based on data.

Unless he can establish an argument backed by the calculated costs and benefits from the presence of U.S. bases, there cannot be a realistic movement for the return of the bases, nor can there be negotiations between the Japanese and U.S. governments on the issue.

It is also necessary to think about what message a reduction of U.S. bases in Okinawa would send to China.

The U.S bases are symbols of U.S. resolve to protect Okinawa.

If the U.S. bases are eliminated from Okinawa, it would be taken that the United States has lost its resolve, which would be akin to daring China by saying, “It’s OK to come attack.” In the sense of preventing war, it is not desirable.

Q: Should the central government continue extending preferential financial support and taking other measures for the promotion of Okinawa?

A: Looking at Okinawa from an economic and geographical standpoint, central government support is absolutely necessary. Without such backing, Okinawa would become like any other remote island.

Postwar development of Okinawa has been predicated on the notion that economic support is necessary because of the devastation it suffered in the Battle of Okinawa (see ) in the final days of World War II.

I believe that thinking needs to change.

Fighting in the Battle of Okinawa was fierce for the U.S. military, too, with many of its soldiers killed or wounded. That alone shows how bravely the people of Okinawa fought.

Given that, wouldn’t logic necessitate that as Okinawans were heroes in the fight preceding a final battle for the mainland, shouldn’t they deserve respect and the treatment that accompanies such valor?

Respect should be shown for the large contribution Okinawa has been making up to this day in the defense of Japan.

It’s time for the government to clearly state, “We extend economic support to reward Okinawa for its contribution to the nation’s defense.”

I also want Okinawa to assert the pride it takes in playing such a role in national defense.

The Battle of Okinawa

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The land battle fought on Okinawa at the end of World War II. U.S. troops landed on the Kerama Islands on March 26, 1945, and on the main island of Okinawa on April 1, with many residents getting caught in the fighting. The U.S. forces intended to use Okinawa as a base for a final assault on the mainland, while the Japanese military’s strategy was to buy time to prepare for such an invasion. At the end of May, the Japanese army headquarters in Shuri fell. On June 23, commanding officer Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima committed ritual suicide in a bunker in southern Okinawa, thereby ending organized fighting. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, total deaths including non-combatants exceeded 120,000. About 12,500 U.S. soldiers died. Many young people from local schools were mobilized — teenaged boys as soldiers and high school girls as nurses — and became victims of the bloodshed.

Tomohide Murai

Professor at Tokyo International University Born in Nara Prefecture, Murai specializes in East Asian security. He completed a doctoral course on international relations at the Graduate School of the University of Tokyo. As well as being a professor of Tokyo International University, Murai is also a professor emeritus of the National Defense Academy. He is coauthor of “Shippai no Honshitsu”