US Navy unwelcome: Why is Japan making life difficult for its strongest ally?

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Originally published by Japan-Forward

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A US Navy destroyer, USS Rafael Peralta recently went to Japan’s Ishigaki island, between Okinawa and Taiwan. It wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. The local authorities at first refused permission for the ship to dock — claiming the water wasn’t deep enough. They later relented, but the local dockworkers union went on strike to protest the ship’s visit.

Okinawa’s Prefectural Government also opposed the visit.

This isn’t the first time United States Navy ships have had trouble getting into Japanese “civilian” ports.

Keep in mind that Japan is said to be America’s strongest ally and supposedly in “lock-step” with the United States. The US is also obligated to defend Japan — and has been since 1960 when the US-Japan Security Treaty was signed.

So what’s going on?

The US military has operational requirements to maintain deterrence and, if necessary, fight to defend Japan. But this runs up against local opposition to military activities and, an even more powerful opponent — the “burden business.” The incident on Ishigaki Island is a reflection of this.

First, the operational requirements.

Why Does the US Military Need Port Access?

The Americans don’t send ships to Ishigaki and other Japanese ports to be difficult.

Rather, to mount an effective defense, the US military wants access to as many ports as possible. And it’s important to use them in so-called “phase zero” — peacetime, or at least before the shooting starts.

It helps to be familiar with a location and operating environment (including the local inhabitants) — rather than figuring things out on the fly once trouble occurs.

If you’ve been somewhere and “done something” it’s different than showing up for the first time. A military practices for the same reasons a baseball team or an orchestra does.

Having more ports to operate from also makes you a harder target. It gives you better odds of surviving a strike on your “main” base and still being able to operate. And that’s an obvious vulnerability for US naval forces in Japan — now operating out of a small number of bases. They are easy targets for Chinese missiles.

It’s not just ports and the US Navy. The US Air Force, Marine, and Navy aviation units face the same problem of overconcentration on a small number of facilities.

Japan has 100+ civilian airfields, having been overbuilt during the bubble era. Most of these airports are underutilized.

The Japanese should open them up to US military aircraft and to the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) — for the same reasons mentioned above.

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“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

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