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Okinawa leader’s message to Washington: US overstates China risk

Tamaki sees more deterrence as upsetting economic balance

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture, last year.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Yonaguni Island, Okinawa Prefecture, last year. (Philip Fong /AFP via Getty Images)

As lawmakers, the Biden administration and Japan move closer to consensus on the need to be ready to deter and respond to a feared Chinese military invasion of Taiwan in the coming years, one interested party is trying to amplify warnings about risk to the Japanese province that could become collateral damage in a regional war.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who has long opposed the U.S. military presence on the islands, traveled to Washington in early March to meet members of Congress and officials at the Pentagon and State Department. Trying to stop the developing consensus in Washington and Japan, Tamaki says there is little chance China will invade Taiwan, the scenario that has become a preoccupation among U.S. officials.

Tamaki says the risk of war comes mainly from a potential action by Taiwan, such as a declaration of independence, or the U.S. ending Washington’s decadeslong policy of having formal diplomatic relations only with Beijing. He said his effort focuses on persuading the U.S. where the risk is coming from.

“Unless Taiwan declares independence with a specific date and time or the U.S. denies the One China policy,” Tamaki said through an interpreter during an interview. “That would be a justification for China to invade Taiwan. But that’s not the case right now, so the possibility of China’s aggression into Taiwan is almost zero.”

The Pentagon said early this year that it would deploy specially trained Marines to Okinawa — Japan’s southwesternmost province — and equip them with anti-ship missiles to respond to a Chinese incursion against nearby Taiwan. Tokyo said in December it would increase its long-range counterstrike missile capabilities and committed itself to a 60 percent defense spending boost over the next five years, raising it to 2 percent of GDP.

Acknowledging that he sees the threat of Chinese aggression much differently than Washington or Tokyo do, Tamaki said the strong trade relations between Taiwan, China, Japan and the U.S. are the reason for his more optimistic view. Military conflict would be too harmful to each nation’s economic interests, he said.

“There is a concern that heightening the deterrence may cause a loss of balance of the economy,” Tamaki said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. “In order to maintain this economic balance, peace-building is the priority. If we focus too much on deterrence by military, this balance may be lost. That is why, as the governor of Okinawa, I have decided to come to … ask the citizens of the U.S. what is important.”

More than 75 years after the end of World War II, Tamaki said Okinawans still count the losses. 

“The people of Okinawa still remember the losses they suffered — 200,000 lives were lost during the Battle of Okinawa,” counting both civilians and troop losses, said Tamaki, speaking at the breakfast.  “Because of this tension over Taiwan, many Okinawans think that we should never let Okinawa be a battlefield again.”

An estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians were killed — some coerced to suicide by Japanese soldiers — in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.  The U.S.-Japan peace treaty put the U.S. military in charge of Okinawa until the early 1970s, when Washington ceded control to Tokyo. The sting of being the only Japanese colony not given its freedom after the war also feeds Okinawans’ sense of injustice that neither side advocated for their interests.

Hearing him out

Tamaki met with lawmakers including Senate Foreign Relations member Todd Young, R-Ind., and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Jill N. Tokuda, D-Hawaii. He said the lawmakers heard him out on his concerns, and he noted that Ocasio-Cortez took the time to learn about the environmental issues the U.S. military presence has created for the main island of Okinawa.

House Foreign Affairs Indo-Pacific Subcommittee Chair Young Kim, R-Calif., and Senate Foreign Relations East Asia Subcommittee member Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, didn’t meet with Tamaki, but they acknowledged Okinawans’ fears of again becoming collateral damage in a military conflict. 

“This is an issue, obviously, that is very important, and it will be a policy priority for our committee and for my members,” Kim said in an interview about the threat of a regional war. 

Schatz said there are no easy solutions. 

“These are thorny issues, but they are thorny issues with our strongest ally, not just in the region but in the world,” he said. “All of this is hard. What we have to do is just keep the dialogue going and be [aware] of how sensitive it is and yet how critical it is for our mutual security.”

Tamaki also met with the State Department’s director of the office of Japanese affairs, Joel Ehrendreich, and with the Pentagon’s Japan office head, Grace Park. He said he came away concerned that the U.S. was so gladdened about Japan’s recent declared shift in defense policy.

“The two sides had a meaningful exchange of views on the security situation in Northeast Asia and other issues affecting the U.S. presence in Okinawa as well as the people of Okinawa,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement. “Both sides agreed on the importance of U.S. base personnel preserving good relations with local communities, and they stressed their commitment to maintaining mutual respect in addressing base-related issues.”

Nicholas Szechenyi, a senior fellow focusing on Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, who met Tamaki on his visit to Washington, said the deterrence effort would help Okinawans if it has the desired effect: preventing conflict.

“China is becoming increasingly aggressive and coercing Japan and, in that environment, I would argue the people of Okinawan would be even more vulnerable without a forward military presence, because that is what deterrence is. Deterrence is about preventing conflict, preventing China from thinking that it can prevail in a conflict,” he said.

Szechenyi also said Tamaki’s visit will benefit the U.S.-Japan alliance.   

“Gov. Tamaki does bring a different perspective on security dynamics in the East China Sea, and he tried to articulate that perspective during his trip to Washington,” he said. “I do think many people in Washington look at that dynamic differently, but these types of exchanges are healthy and ultimately strengthen the relationship between Japan and the United States.”

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