Increasingly hostile relations between Washington and Beijing have dialed up the urgency of Okinawan protesters’ demands.
Thousands of Japanese protesters assembled near Kadena Air Base in Okinawa to protest the US occupation of the island on Saturday, on the 51st anniversary of the island returning to Japanese control.
The annual demonstration comes amid rising regional tensions as the US supplies Taiwan with weapons in what China views as open provocation.
Chanting slogans including “Give us back our peaceful life” and “Osprey get out,” the latter being a reference to US military helicopters, the demonstrators demanded the closure of the US’ Okinawa bases. The island’s inhabitants are weary of the pollution – both chemical and aural – produced by Washington’s military outposts, as well as the high number of crimes committed by American servicemembers, from petty theft and drunk driving to rape and murder.
Governor Denny Tamaki has urged the Japanese and US governments to reduce the Pentagon’s footprint on the island, which hosts 70% of all US military facilities in Japan despite comprising just 1% of the country’s total land area.
The protests come as an increasingly militarized Japan becomes a focal point in the great-power rivalry between the US and China. The US recently fast-tracked a $500 million defense package to Taiwan, just a month after hosting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen for a hugely controversial “unofficial” visit, eliciting warnings and massive military maneuvers from Beijing.
Last year, Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force held its first-ever large-scale maritime drill with US troops stationed in Okinawa, enacting scenarios aimed at deterring “competitor and adversary aggression.”
NATO is reportedly even planning to open a liaison office in Tokyo, as the bloc last year discarded the pretense of limiting itself to the ‘North Atlantic’ part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization by inviting its regional allies – Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand – to its annual summit in a signal of increased focus on Beijing.
Should war break out between the two countries, it is widely understood that the US would use its Japanese bases to stage operations, making Japan a likely target of Chinese retaliation.
Japan approved its largest defense budget ever last year and plans to double defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2027, making its defense budget the world’s third-largest after the US and China, in a drive to acquire “counterstrike capability.” This represents a significant strategic shift away from the solely defensive posture Tokyo has been legally required to maintain since the end of World War II, though the constitution’s language was relaxed in 2017.