December 15, 2018

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: China’s Drive To The Western Pacific.

I’ve had to wait on the tarmac for planes ahead of mine to take off before, but never F-15s. Naha airport here shares a runway with Japan’s Air Self Defense Forces, leading to delays whenever Japanese fighters scramble to counter Chinese incursions into the airspace above the Senkaku Island Chain in the East China Sea. The pace of such incursions has accelerated over the last half decade. The Japanese scrambled a high of 1,168 times in 2016, mostly in response to Chinese activity. The sight of active afterburners on a U.S. commercial runway would be shocking. In Okinawa, it’s everyday life.

More than 1 million Okinawans share the southernmost prefecture of Japan with some 25,000 U.S. air, ground, naval, and marine forces. More than half of U.S. bases in Japan are located within these 463 square miles. The crowded space has long been a site of tension. A brutal crime committed against a local girl by American soldiers in 1996 precipitated negotiations between the United States and Japan over the consolidation and relocation of our forces.

The process has been delayed by local and national Japanese politics. Opposition to the expansion of Camp Schwab in the less densely populated northern part of the island to replace Futenma airbase became a rallying cry for opposition lawmakers. The prefectural governor, Denny Tamaki, was elected on an anti-expansion platform last October. Tamaki defeated the candidate backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party by a surprisingly large margin. His father was a U.S. Marine.

The national interests of the United States, Japan, and China meet in Okinawa. The island has been essential to the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Asia since World War II. The base is the keystone of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Our presence signifies America’s guarantee of Japanese security and helps sustain the economy of Japan’s poorest prefecture.

Expect the Chinese to try to stir up local “grassroots” opposition to the U.S. bases.

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