The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Military Presence as a NTS Threat – the Case of Okinawa

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on October 2, 2012
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Amid the escalation of its territorial dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Japan reached an agreement with the United States on deploying MV-22 Ospreys to the US military bases in Okinawa, despite vocal public opposition to the deployment. The aircraft was involved in a series of accidents and this has raised the local community’s concern for their own safety. The agreement between the two governments and the strong protests re-emphasise the tension between national security and human security in Okinawa.

Okinawa plays a disproportionate role in the US-Japan security alliance, hosting 25 percent of all US military facilities and half of the US personnel in Japan but accounting for less than 1 per cent of Japanese territory. The protests against Ospreys are only the latest manifestation of Okinawans’ resentment against the US military bases. The heavy US military footprint has caused many non-traditional security (NTS) threats to local people, including environmental pollution, economic vulnerabilities, and social insecurities. Aircraft noise poses serious health threats to residents near the air bases. In 2011, residents around the Kadena air base filed a class lawsuit over aircraft noise, seeking compensation and a ban on night flights. Live ammunition trainings in the jungles have caused forest fire and soil erosion. Besides, accidents and incidents resulted from undisciplined behaviors of some soldiers have also upset local community, such as the 1995 rape incident and the 2004 helicopter crash. Lack of economic resilience is another NTS issue facing Okinawa as the prefecture is heavily subsidized by the central government. The reliance on central budget has limited the autonomy and flexibility of local economic development, as part of the earmarked money comes with restrictions.

Having realised the negative consequences, the Japanese and US governments have agreed to address these NTS threats, such as reducing the number of US soldiers from 19,500 to 10,900 in the future, relocating the controversial Futenma Air base to a less crowded location and adjusting training and operation procedures. However, the implementation of these measures progresses very slowly. The difficulties of addressing these issues are primarily rooted in the strategic importance of Okinawa. Okinawa has played an essential role in the US military operations in Asia since the Cold War. The US rebalance to Asia has made the bases even more important given Okinawa’s location at the intersection of Northeast and Southeast Asia. The recent escalation of tension between Japan and China has reinforced Japan’s belief in the need of US bases for its national security. Moreover, the strategic importance of Okinawa has made the Japanese government caught between national security and public anger. Politicians in Japan tend to promise a stronger position on the base issue to win voter support but usually fail to deliver the promise once they are elected. For instance, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned as a result of failure to keep his word.

The US military presence in Okinawa has been intended for defending Japan’s security and US strategic interests in East Asia.. However, the controversy over the US bases show that local people’s freedom from NTS challenges has not been fully respected in the pursuit of Japan’s national security. As the concept of security has evolved to incorporate human security as one of its dimensions, the security of Japan means more than absence of conflict and invasion but also the protection of its people’s well-beings. The achievement of Japan’s traditional security should not be at the expense of Okinawans’ non-traditional security.

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