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Building a Maritime "Great Wall" to Contain China? Explaining Japan's Recalibration of Risk with the Militarization of Okinawa

By Key-young, Son; Mason, Ra | Asian Perspective, July-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Building a Maritime "Great Wall" to Contain China? Explaining Japan's Recalibration of Risk with the Militarization of Okinawa


Key-young, Son, Mason, Ra, Asian Perspective


In this article we aim to illustrate both the progress and the stalemates of the US and Japanese strategies to fortify the Okinawan Islands as a bulwark against China. As a conceptual tool to analyze the accommodation and resistance of militarization, we use the notion of a complex interplay of state, market, and societal actors, which showcases the process of mediating and recalibrating risks perceived by policymakers in Tokyo in response to the rise of China. In this process, risk has been shifted to individual stakeholders within society. We argue that the full-scale fortification of the Okinawan Islands will be hard to achieve because of the resistance of local residents and anti-base activists, as well as China's military and commercial strategies to circumvent any form of blockade. Key- words: Okinawa, militarization, China's rise, civil society in Japan.

For the past sixty years, Okinawa has been exposed to a shifting set of risks associated with its hosting of large-scale US military installations (Smith 2006; Tanji 2006; Calder 2007; Cooley 2008; Lutz 2009). The Ryukyu island chain's precarious position and contested utilization have been brought to the fore by multilateral posturing over the sovereignty of a set of its outlying rocks. China, Japan, and Taiwan all lay claim to the Senkakus (known also as Diaoyudao or Pinnacle Islands), as shown in Figure 1. The US Marines stationed on Okinawa could potentially be those sent to the Senkakus in the unlikely event that they are seized by China. Indeed, US and Japanese forces have conducted exercises under the scenario of retaking the islands, and-as we explore in this article-Japan has made several important moves to further militarize the archipelago.

Increasingly, the already militarized Okinawa Island and the planned fortification of the outlying Ryukyu island chain by the United States and Japan could be metaphorically comparable to the construction of a "giant maritime Great Wall" to contain China (McCormack 2012). The creation of this Great Wall and its relation to the ongoing US base relocation issues on Okinawa are closely associated with the threats perceived from the rise of China. But they have also become a high-risk game in Japanese society, in which the responsibility for risk has shifted from exter- nal (US) to state (Japan) actors and then to subnational actors. In this article we illustrate this process through an analysis of some major cases of the militarization of the Ryukyu island chain- cases that reveal the intersection of state, market, and societal spheres. Central to this analysis are the dynamics of coercion and persuasion on the part of the central government in Tokyo and protests and accommodation on the part of local residents. We argue that the "rational" action-reaction sequence between "China threats" and the Japanese and US governments' countervailing responses has been complicated by the intervention of market and societal actors peddling different values in what we term a com- plex interplay of state, market, and societal actors.

We first look at why our conceptual framework based on a com- plex interplay of forces has better explanatory power than the con- ventional realist approaches. We then illustrate how the fortification of the Ryukyu island chain has been designed to contain China and whether it has been successful in the face of resistance by residents and anti-base activists on one side and by China's strategies to pen- etrate the maritime Great Wall on the other (McCormack and Nori- matsu 2012). In this article we look at three examples of the militarization of the Ryukyu island chain: the construction of new helipads at the jungle training facilities at Takae in northern Oki- nawa, the decision of the Japanese Ministry of Defense in August 2011 to deploy SDF forces (a coastal surveillance unit) to Yonaguni, and Ishigaki mayor Nakayama Yoshitaka's decision to open the island to SDF port visits.

For this research, we not only gathered data but also con- ducted on-the-spot interviews with key actors in the areas just mentioned: on Yonaguni Island, which is only 111 kilometers from Taiwan and about 500 kilometers from the prefectural capi- tal of Naha; on Ishigaki, one of the Okinawan islands that holds the Senkakus under its jurisdiction; and on Takae in the northern part of Okinawa.

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