50 years later, Okinawa is still a strategic crossroads
50 years later, Okinawa is still a strategic crossroads

50 years later, Okinawa is still a strategic crossroads

It is fifty years ago that the United States relinquished control of Okinawa Prefecture. However, the islands are still home to dozens of U.S. bases, and with China’s escalating aggression in the region, Okinawa’s importance to the U.S. and Japanese military has only grown. The United States and Japan are increasingly concerned about tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and Okinawa’s proximity to Taiwan makes it a focal point in Allied efforts to increase deterrence.

Why is Okinawa important?

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The Ryukyu Islands, which make up Okinawa Prefecture, are strategically located between Japan and mainland Asia. Growing military tensions in Northeast Asia continue to make Okinawa of great strategic value to both Washington and Tokyo.

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The United States and Japan in particular are increasingly concerned about China provocative behavior towards Taiwan and worry that China could use force against the island. Okinawa’s southernmost inhabited island, Yonaguni, is only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from Taiwan. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised questions about how the US-Japan alliance would react should a crisis break out: Would bases in Japan be fully accessible to US forces? What role would Japan’s self-defense forces play in such a regional contingency? U.S. and Japanese forces stationed in Okinawa would be important for an Allied response to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, but the alliance would also need to consider Japan’s own defense requirements in such a contingency.

Japan’s southwestern islands are also attracting significant American and Japanese attention as the region’s largest military operates in their waters. China’s fleet often crosses the strait to reach the western Pacific, and the US and Japanese military regularly train together across the southwestern region.

Tokyo and Beijing have also clashed over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), uninhabited islands about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Okinawa’s capital Naha. Japan has a Coast Guard fleet on Ishigaki Island to keep an eye on Chinese activities near these disputed islands, and China has also deployed Coast Guard patrols. Japanese and Chinese naval and air forces also operate across the East China Sea, where the maritime border is also disputed. Japan’s air and ground self-defense forces have been relocated to Japan’s southwestern region to ensure early detection of Chinese operations near Japanese waters and airspace.

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What’s America’s History of Okinawa?

During World War II, in 1945, the United States launched its invasion of Japan via Okinawa. After the war, the United States ended occupied Japan and built large military bases in Okinawa that it would use to fight the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1972, as it pulled down its military engagement in Asia after the Vietnam War, the United States returned Okinawa to Japan, but retained access to its bases. Today, these bases represent the majority of the land occupied by the U.S. military in Japan and 10 percent of Okinawa’s land area.

In Okinawa, the United States maintains Kadena Air Base, its largest in the Indo-Pacific, as well as fleet facilities for supplying surface and submarine fleets. The U.S. Marine Corps also maintains the III Marine Expeditionary Force, a fast-moving corps that can be deployed across the Indo-Pacific.

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What are the tensions between the United States and Japan over Okinawa?

The US bases remain in focus for the people of Okinawa. The US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which gives the US military extraterritoriality on their island, creates frustration when accidents and crimes occur. Originally, such incidents were prosecuted by US military authorities.

People are looking towards the US air base Kadena in Okinawa, Japan.
Issei Kato / Reuters

In 1995, three U.S. officials raped a 12-year-old girl, prompting an island-wide protest movement reminiscent in scale and resentment of early post-war demonstrations. The U.S. and Japanese governments responded by forming a special action committee on Okinawa, which agreed to reduce the footprint of U.S. forces there. They also agreed to give the Japanese authorities custody of all U.S. personnel charged with heinous crimes, such as rape, murder and arson. The men found guilty of the 1995 rape were sentenced to prison in Japan, and other subsequent crimes have been prosecuted by Japanese authorities.

How could the United States and Japan address the concerns of the Okinawans?

As long as tensions with China continue, it is unlikely that both countries will meet Okinawan’s demands to reduce the military forces on their islands. As countries consider a Taiwan crisis, Okinawa’s bases will increase important for the alliance.

One way to deal with residents’ frustrations would be to integrate the American and Japanese bases. Base integration could consolidate military-occupied territory and improve the interface between the Japanese government and its citizens. There may also be operational benefits for US and Japanese forces when considering how to integrate during a regional crisis.

Should another major incident provoke the people of Okinawan, the US and Japanese military will once again be confronted with the demand for a reduced presence on the islands. It will be crucial to address residents’ fears of carrying the bulk of the competition for great power when the United States and Japan consider their regional goals.

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