Editorial: Expert panel calls for public discourse on base-issues

March 31, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

How should Henoko’s military base construction issue, stemming from the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, be addressed? An expert panel recently provided an answer to this question.

Okinawa prefecture previously formed the “Bankoku Shinryo Conference on U.S. Military Base Issues” (Bankoku Shinryo, literally: bridge between nations) to affect policy. Its chairman, Kyoji Yanagisawa, recently offered a statement to the prefectural government: rather than fixating on the Henoko relocation, the focus should be placed on the phased consolidation and scaling down of U.S. bases in Okinawa, specifically by dispersing them to other prefectures and countries.

The experts of the Bankoku Shinryo Conference pointed to the technical challenges of the ongoing relocation project, such as the soft seabed at Henoko, Nago City, and to the government’s estimation that the project will cost taxpayers 930 billion yen with a timeline exceeding 12 years. The expert members explained that speedy action is required to address the original objective of closing US MCAS Futenma, which was to eliminate the dangers it poses.

The expert panel also pointed out the local protests and the recent changes in the region’s security environment. With China expanding its missile capabilities, the Bankoku Shinryo Conference stated that the geographical advantage of installing bases on Okinawa has diminished and militarily, there is more strategic merit in dispersing U.S. forces.

The group concluded that the prefecture should position itself at the intersection of a detente and confidence building in the Asia-Pacific region. To that point, they requested the formation of a Japan-U.S. joint expert panel and called for active public discourse.

The group did not specify where the base should be dispersed to, and in the narrow sense, their conclusion would not be considered a counterproposal. However, they did provide an alternative course of action to the relocation of USMCAS Futenma to Henoko. This can be seen as a response to Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide’s recent criticism that “the governor [of Okinawa] has not stated how to eliminate the dangers [of Futenma]”.
We applaud the Bankoku Shinryo Committee for taking a pragmatic approach in line with military rationale and U.S. strategy, and for presenting a policy that is more feasible. However, Chairman Yanagisawa’s comment that “this is not an easy task,” confirms that the larger problem lies with Japan rather than the U.S.

In the past, Japan’s key government officials have stated that U.S. military bases cannot be relocated to other prefectures due to “political reasons”, which is a testament to Japan’s institutional discrimination against Okinawa in forcing on to it the military burden.

This is further reinforced by the public attitudes held in the main islands of Japan, where many are uninterested and ignore base-related issues. This systemic practice needs to end; otherwise, affecting policy changes will prove difficult when both the Japanese and U.S. governments have repeated that relocating Futenma base to Henoko is “the only option”.

Previously, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly adopted a position statement in which it urged nation-wide public discourse on mitigating the prefecture’s U.S. base burden, and finding a solution through democratic means. Given the result of the previous prefectural referendum and the public opinion in Okinawa, the prefectural government should explore and implement various ways to incite public discourse.

On the other hand, there are concerning aspects to the group’s conclusion as well—could alignment with U.S. strategy invite reinforcement of military capabilities in Okinawa? In an effort to contain China, the U.S. has redefined the role of the Marine Corps and has placed even more importance on their presence in Okinawa than before. As it happens, there are plans to install nuclear-capable intermediate missiles on base in Okinawa and throughout Japan.

Even if the Marine Corps were re-distributed out of Okinawa, deployment of offensive missiles to Japan would defeat the purpose of the dispersion. The prefecture must be mindful of this consideration.

Lastly, there needs to be a medium-/long-term vision of how to mitigate Okinawa’s military burden, not just pertaining to the U.S. Marine Corps, but in hosting the Japan Self Defense Forces as well.

(English translation by T&CT and Monica Shingaki)

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