Okinawa isn’t in the news nearly as much as it was some year’s back, when most reporting focused on noisy protest groups demanding United States’ military forces leave. The Japanese government sometimes even seemed to wish the Americans might go away and only return when needed.
Times have changed. Nowadays the reporting is mostly on the China threat. And Tokyo is presumably glad the Americans are still around on Okinawa.
It never hurts to remember why US forces are in Okinawa.
What is the strategic importance of Okinawa?
In military matters, geography is supremely important. Okinawa (for convenience sake, referring to the entire Ryukyu Island chain and not just the main island of Okinawa) is “key strategic geography” by virtue of its location. Okinawa sits in between the southern Japan mainland, Taiwan, and China. And it is also close to the Korean Peninsula.
Whoever occupies Okinawa has an advantage. For US forces, Okinawa bases allow a “forward presence” that simplifies air, sea, and ground operations in the region. And this region is where today’s “great power rivalry” is playing out most intensely. Some argue that a fight with China is likely to break out in this neighborhood.
Okinawa bases facilitate offensive military operations, of course. But they are also useful defensively, although the difference between offensive and defensive operations is often a matter of interpretation.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has to tread carefully if it moves in the East China Sea. And even a Chinese assault on Taiwan would be vulnerable to US and Japanese forces operating out of Okinawa. Emplacing anti-ship missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems on Okinawa’s islands would also “close off” large areas of ocean to the Chinese Navy and Air Force, and could also “range” parts of Taiwan.
Looking farther afield, Okinawa bases also allow the Americans to operate more easily throughout the entire Western Pacific and beyond. The US Marine-led response to the 2015 Nepal Earthquake in fact was launched from Okinawa. Also, Okinawan bases are available in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula.
China knows the answer.
China is well aware of Okinawa’s importance to Japan’s defense – and forward basing in particular. And it would like United States (and Japanese forces) gone.
Consider how China has built artificial islands and established military bases in the South China Sea. This “extends forward” People’s Liberation Army operating capabilities. It allows the PLA to dominate or control sea and airspace much farther from the Chinese mainland than would be the case without the islands. Okinawa provides similar advantages to whoever holds them.
And don’t forget the political significance of Japan defending its territory against Chinese aggression. China has stated its intentions to eventually “retake” Okinawa (the Ryukyus) and not just the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo is demonstrating political will, and the Japanese and the Americans joining for mutual defense of Japanese territory and to ward off Chinese expansion, is a clear sign of political determination by the world’s two major democracies.
Read the rest at Japan Forward.
Grant Newsham is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.