Editorial: We must not concede to military use of Shimojishima Airport

August 11, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

A meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party National Defense Parliamentary Group saw many participants put forth the idea that the Self-Defense Forces should be allowed to use Shimojishima Airport in Miyakojima City for the purpose of strengthening defense of the Nansei Islands. This argument contravenes a memorandum of understanding executed between the national government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government prohibiting military use of Shimojishima Airport. It further throws cold water on the efforts of locals and others who have worked hard to promote regional development through civilian use of the airport. We cannot accept this.

In 1971, before Okinawa was returned to Japan, the Government of the Ryukyu Islands at the time executed with the Japanese government a memorandum of understanding (MOU) called the “Yara MOU” specifying that only civilian aircraft would use Shimojishima Airport, which opened as a pilot training airport. The MOU stipulated that: (1) the Government of the Ryukyu Islands (subsequently the Okinawa Prefectural Government) shall own and manage the airport, and the airport’s mode of use shall be determined by the Government of the Ryukyu Islands; and (2) the Japanese government has no intent to use the airport for any purpose other than civilian flight training and civilian flights, and has no basis under the law to order any use other than such use.

In a note called the “Nishime Confirmation Letter” exchanged between the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the Japanese national government in 1979, the two parties reaffirmed that the airport “shall be available for use by civilian aircraft except in cases of unavoidable circumstances” such as cases of saving lives or times of emergency evacuation. In February 2013, the Abe administration passed a cabinet resolution on a written response specifying that the authority to use the airport “lies in the Okinawa Prefectural Government, which is the manager” of the airport.

Nonetheless, at this meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party National Defense Parliamentary Group, the view was expressed that in light of recent increased activity of Chinese government ships near the Senkaku Islands, the Self-Defense Forces should be allowed to operate on Shimoji Island, given that “the only airport that Self-Defense Force fighter planes can use is in Naha” and Shimoji Island “is close to the Senkakus.”

Defense Minister Taro Kono refuted these arguments, saying, “At this point in time, there is no plan for the Self-Defense Forces to use [the island] for facility-related purposes.” We strongly hope that the government will stand by its promise.

Amidst divided public opinion, the government has been hurrying to deploy the Ground Self-Defense Forces to the Nansei Islands, starting with the deployment of a Coast Observation Unit to Yonaguni in 2016. Missile units and security units have been deployed in Amami and Miyako, and are planned to be deployed in Ishigaki as well. The government’s main concern is China’s increasing military power, but Chinese planes and vessels are increasing their activity to match the accelerating Self-Defense Force deployment. It is apparent that the reinforcement of Self-Defense Force presence is only increasing tensions.

As U.S.-China relations worsen, the United States even has a plan to deploy a new intermediate-range missile system capable of carrying nuclear missiles to the Nansei Islands. We cannot concede to Okinawa, which already hosts more than its share of bases, shouldering any further risk in a contingency. The same is true of Self-Defense Force use of Shimoji Island.

Shimojishima Airport, which has a 3,000-meter runway, has always been targeted each time the topic of military airport use comes up. The airport has experienced ups and downs, dealing with suspension of the flight route that passed through it and cancellation of pilot training there, but in March of last year it reopened as hub for LLCs connecting the island to other parts of Japan and abroad, and it is experiencing a new takeoff as an important piece of infrastructure supporting regional revitalization and livelihoods.

Miyakojima has experienced a surge in tourism in recent years, with 400,000 tourists in fiscal 2013 rising to 1.14 million in fiscal 2018. Though the Covid-19 pandemic presents uncertainty for the future, the Okinawa Prefectural Government hopes to raise the number of tourists to 1.6 million in fiscal 2024. There is no doubt that expanded civilian use of Shimojishima Airport is essential to tourism and economic development.

(English translation by T&CT and Sandi Aritza)

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