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US Base in Okinawa

Posted April. 28, 2010 05:50,   


Okinawa Prefecture is quite isolated from the Japanese mainland. Its capital Naha is 1,566 kilometers away from Tokyo, but only 1,306 kilometers from Seoul, 1,454 kilometers from Manila, and 657 kilometers from Taipei. The U.S. military occupied Okinawa in 1945 but returned it to Japan in 1972. American military bases built there remain intact, however. Thirty-three of the 52 U.S. bases in Japan are in Okinawa. Due to the island’s strategic importance, Washington calls Okinawa the “keystone” of the Pacific.

Unlike U.S. forces in mainland Japan, U.S. troops in Okinawa are also in charge of defending the Asia-Pacific region as well as Japan. The island also serves as the primary launch pad for the U.S. military in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula. Seen from Kadena Air Base, which is armed with high-tech aircraft, Seoul is situated within the base’s operational radius of less than an hour. The 18,000-strong “instant mobile troops” of the U.S. Marines stationed there can be deployed anywhere in Asia and the Pacific within six to 48 hours. It would take 21 days if the Marines are dispatched from the U.S. mainland. Their mission is to remove weapons of mass destruction in North Korea if war breaks out on the peninsula.

Futenma Air Base in south central Okinawa is the air hub of the U.S. Marines stationed on the island. Surrounded by residential and commercial districts, the base is the cause of many complaints from residents. Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2006 to relocate the base to Schwab Base in northeastern Okinawa. Conflict flared, however, after the Democratic Party of Japan promised to relocate the base outside of Okinawa as a campaign pledge before taking power. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is agonizing over whether to choose Japan’s national interest or political considerations until the deadline of late May.

Japan is increasing its troop presence in Okinawa in view of China’s rising influence. If U.S. Marines are pulled from the island, not only will it cause a disruption in the U.S. defense strategy for the Asia-Pacific region, including the Korean Peninsula, but will deal Japan a major loss in its national defense. The sinking of the South Korean naval patrol boat Cheonan is something Japan can ill afford to ignore, as mounting evidence suggests the North was involved. Tokyo must be wary of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and must also guard against an underwater attack from North Korea. Japan should reconsider the relocation of the Futenma base as deterrence in its defense against North Korea.

Editorial Writer Lee Jin-nyong (jinnyong@donga.com)