These days Okinawa isn’t in the news much—being overshadowed by the looming Chinese military threat, North Korean missile launches, a war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, and attendant global economic turmoil.
This is the 50th year since the United States relinquished its occupation and returned Okinawa to Japan. American forces have remained on Okinawa to this day, not without controversy.
This writer recently offered comments about Okinawa and its role in regional defense—and the island’s importance when military and political analysts and strategists look at the map of Northeast Asia.
From the U.S. perspective, has Okinawa‘s strategic importance changed in the past 50 years?
Okinawa is as important as it has ever been—and maybe more so. It has what real estate agents refer to as “location, location, location.” Indeed, the map tells you most of what you need to know about Okinawa’s strategic importance. It’s a very good location for basing and facilitating the movement of U.S. forces throughout the Western Pacific, over to the Korean Peninsula, down into Southeast Asia, and beyond.
Don’t forget the political significance of American forces “forward deployed.” This allows for rapid response to contingencies (for example, an attack or threatened attack) and serves as a “tripwire” in the event of Chinese or North Korean (or Russian) aggression. Having U.S. forces already in Okinawa avoids a paralyzing debate in Washington over whether or not to deploy forces overseas—should an incident happen. The forces are already deployed. An enemy is less likely to try for a “fait accompli.”
Okinawa and the U.S. forces (and Japanese forces) based there are also a sign of mutual commitment by both Japan and the United States to cooperate (in other words, fight together) in Japan’s defense and maintain stability in the broader Pacific region. And that includes Taiwan—only a few hundred miles from Okinawa—and that the Chinese regime fully intends to conquer.
All in all, U.S. forces in Okinawa are a deterrent to China, North Korea, and Russia. And by definition, they are an “assurance” to everyone else. And this influence ripples Indo-Pacific-wide, not just in the area right around Japan.
Often overlooked, Okinawa-based U.S. forces regularly respond to natural disasters in Japan, the broader Western Pacific, and over to the Indian subcontinent. Okinawa is a perfect “launching” pad, given its location. And there is a considerable political benefit that comes from effective U.S. disaster response efforts.
Have increased tensions in Asia and a potential fight over Taiwan affected Okinawa’s role in regional defense?
As noted, Okinawa is immensely important. For many years, there was a sense in Japan that Okinawa was only of use to the United States—and that Japan faced no dangers or enemies. Those days are long gone—and Japan mainly recognizes this.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone the biggest, fastest military buildup in the post-war era—if not in history. The Chinese are committed to subjugating Taiwan—by force, if necessary. And if Beijing makes its move, it will be necessary to either deter or defeat U.S. and Japanese forces in the process. That includes forces on Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands.
The U.S. presence in Okinawa is essential from an operational perspective—in other words, conducting operations both before and after the shooting starts. This presence is also important from a political and psychological perspective. U.S. forces on Okinawa are a sign of resolve and a warning to China that if the PLA attacks Japan (and/or Taiwan), it will also have to deal with the United States.
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