A gray U.S. Air Force tanker banks sharply toward the runway, its four turbofans screaming as it flares for landing. As its tires hit the runway they give off a bluish smoke through which the outline of a U.S. Navy maritime patrol plane taxiing on the tarmac becomes visible.
It’s the patrol plane’s turn now, and it accelerates, its propellers grinding the air, to take its place in a long line of aircraft waiting to take off from the Kadena Air Base, the largest part of what is arguably the most vital military complex in the Pacific for the United States and its closest regional allies.
An explosive political drama that reached its climax earlier this month underscored the importance of Kadena and the surrounding bases. On June 2, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama stepped down after weeks of tumbling public support for his administration. The reason — the ongoing uncertainty over the future of U.S. forces in Japan.
During the general election campaign last year, Hatoyama had vowed to reconsider a 2006 deal over the relocation of U.S. Marines from the Futenma Air Station, a smaller base just south of Kadena. After strongly hinting that he would abandon the 2006 deal, Hatoyama announced in late May his continued support for the existing agreement reached under the previous Liberal Democratic Party administration.
Under this agreement, the Marines would eventually relocate their airstrip to a less-populated part of the island prefecture. But many Okinawans oppose any U.S. military presence there at all. U.S. bases — and Futenma, especially — have generally been unpopular among the now largely pacifist Japanese public, particularly Okinawans. In 1995, three U.S. servicemen from Futenma abducted and raped a local schoolgirl, further stoking opposition to the base. And aircraft crashes are another safety concern, especially as Kadena and Futenma have between them several hundred U.S. military aircraft permanently based at facilities surrounded by densely populated residential neighbourhoods.
The decision to stick with the 2006 deal represented the belated recognition on Hatoyama’s part that “there was no other good option” for the strategically-vital Marine presence and for the U.S.-Japanese alliance in general, according to Michael Auslin, an Asia expert with the American Enterprise Institute. In that context, the prime minister’s vague election promise to Okinawan base-detractors was a “miscalculation.”
So, will the Futenma dispute also prove the undoing of Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, who has so far stayed quiet on the base issue? If anything, the crisis over Futenma underscored the lasting, even growing, importance of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa — not only for the United States, but also for Japan and other U.S. allies. As China’s economic and military rise continues and tensions mount over North Korea’s nuclear programme and its alleged sinking of a South Korean warship, the U.S. and its Asian allies need Okinawa more than ever.