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Move Okinawa’s unwanted US military bases to Taiwan

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U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, center and right on a screen, delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's ret...

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, center and right on a screen, delivers a speech during a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's ret...

May 15th is the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion from American to Japanese rule. Okinawa's governor, Denny Tamaki, has called on all of Japan to debate how to reduce the number of U.S. troops and military facilities stationed in Okinawa. This essay is a response to Governor Tamaki’s call.

Okinawa hosts about half of the 50,000+ U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Despite making up only 0.6% of Japan’s total land area, Okinawa contains more than 70% of the land that is used exclusively for U.S. military facilities.

According to a new poll conducted by Kyodo News, 79% of Japanese believe that Okinawa’s base-hosting burden is unfair, and 58% support transferring some bases out of the prefecture. However, the same poll shows that 69% of Japanese do not want the bases to be moved to areas where they live.

Perhaps the only place in Japan where a U.S. base could be moved without generating local opposition would be the Senkaku Islands, and that is because no one lives there.

Presumably, moving a U.S. base to the Senkakus would be possible, given that the islands hosted a fish processing plant in the early 1900s, where about 200 Japanese lived and worked. However, a base in the Senkakus would be an easy target to destroy, so stationing a significant number of troops or military facilities there would be unwise.

Five years ago, John Bolton, a former U.S. national security advisor and ambassador to the UN, proposed another idea that could resolve the base issue with minimal Japanese complaints. In response to increasing Chinese belligerence, Bolton suggested redeploying U.S. troops from Okinawa to Taiwan.

Bolton argued that no new legislation would be required beforehand because existing U.S. law, specifically the Taiwan Relations Act, is expansive enough to permit stationing U.S. troops in Taiwan.

Bolton acknowledged that China would not like it, but the reality is that there are no better options.

The U.S. has many military bases in the Pacific, but the bases in Okinawa are the closest ones to Taiwan and are a key factor deterring China from attempting an invasion.

If U.S. bases in Okinawa were transferred far north to the Japanese mainland, their distance from Taiwan would more than double, making a Chinese invasion of Taiwan easier, more tempting, and thus more likely.

A less secure Taiwan would not be in the interests of Okinawans, as it could precipitate the very thing that Okinawans fear most: a Chinese invasion that leads to U.S. and Japanese intervention, potentially giving rise to Chinese retaliatory attacks on military bases in densely populated areas of Okinawa, resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties.

A Chinese invasion would also likely trigger a tsunami of Taiwanese refugees that would overwhelm Okinawa's southernmost Yaeyama Islands, given that those islands are the most direct escape route out of Taiwan.

In order to visualize the potential severity of the situation, bear in mind that more than 13% of Ukraine's population has fled the country since Russia invaded in February. If 13% of Taiwan's population evacuated, that would be equivalent to roughly 3 million people, more than double the entire population of Okinawa and about 60 times the population of the Yaeyama Islands.

According to a new Yomiuri poll, 93% of Japanese said they felt that China’s military build-up and its aggressiveness towards Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands is a threat to Japan’s national security. 65% said they believe the US military bases in Okinawa make Japan more secure.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has summarized the situation in a single sentence: “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s declaration of a “no limits” partnership with Russia has created a heightened sense of urgency that more must be done to deter China from attacking Taiwan.

Abe Shinzo wrote an op-ed calling on the U.S. to end its decades-old policy of strategic ambiguity. He stated, “The time has come for the U.S. to make clear that it would defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.”

One of the clearest ways for the U.S. to demonstrate its commitment to defending Taiwan would be to move troops there.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the U.S. stationed thousands of troops in Taiwan, only to remove all of them in 1979 after the U.S. established diplomatic relations with China. The Taiwan Relation Act explicitly states, “the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

Because China has consistently threatened the use of “non-peaceful means” and has even written that threat into law, all prior agreements between the U.S. and China regarding Taiwan should now be considered null and void.

Instead of spending another 50 years debating where to move Okinawa’s unwanted U.S. military bases, Japan should focus its attention on the one solution that makes the most sense. Public discussion should shift to the problem of how to minimize Chinese anger as bases are transferred to Taiwan. If the bases are not moved to Taiwan, then the best alternative is for the bases to remain in Okinawa.

Lindell Lucy is an American based in Tokyo. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from Stanford University and is currently studying international relations at the Harvard Extension School.