Trump, Abe, and a fight for the islands

Credit: CNN, 2017

Okinawa Prefecture, a collection of islands in the East China Sea, is a reluctant host to over 70% of the US military bases in Japan. However, constructing a new floating seabase in Henoko has angered locals and led to continued protest since 2004. Donald Trump’s election campaign offered a small glimmer of hope to Okinawans because he hinted at a shift in US foreign policy.

Trump criticised several of the United State’s established security alliances such as NATO, and repeatedly threatened to close the US military bases in Japan unless it bore all the costs. He suggested that ‘Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea’ to CNN in March 2016. However, Japan had recently increased US military contributions to almost $4 billion annually. Furthermore, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved a reinterpretation of Article 9, renouncing war as a sovereign right of the nation, to expand the terms of self-defense in July 2014. Japan could take military action if one of its allies was attacked, a change that was met with US approval. So, now Trump is President, does he plan to shake up US foreign policy in East Asia or is he just after a better deal?

The decision to make General James Mattis the Defense Secretary was a conservative one. Gen. Mattis was CinC of Central Command for Obama and believes that “Russia, Terrorist Groups and China’s activities in the South China Seas” are the main threats. His first trip was to Japan where he reassured PM Abe that the US military will maintain its commitments to protect Japanese territories including the Senkaku Islands.

Territorial rights over this collection of islands in the South China Sea are subject to dispute. Japan maintains administrative control, China claims historical rights over the Daioyu islands, and both have drawn Air Defence Zones over the area. The comments did not go unnoticed in China; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson rebuffed the US to “stop making wrong remarks on the issue of sovereignty”. Gen. Mattis also sent a clear message to Okinawa when he offered a move to Henoko as “the only solution” for closing the Futenma base. However, the majority of Okinawans oppose this decision. Popular opinion polls are consistently against the relocation and Takeshi Onaga was elected governor two years ago with a pledge to block the relocation.

An Okinawan delegation led by Gov. Onaga went to Washington in early February to make its case; the group met with members of Congress both Republican and Democrats, and twelve members of the House of Representatives. However, the White House doors remained closed to them. The President did receive Abe with a tight – if not painful- handshake, a hearty thanks for its contributions and a security alliance that includes “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea”. A great deal for Trump is a great deal for Abe, and they both deserved a great weekend at the Mar-A-Lago. The US-Japan security alliance offers Japan an opportunity to increase its influence in East Asian foreign policy. For Okinawans, the fight to protect its own island continues.

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