Mention China on the dockside of Itoman port, Okinawa, and you can expect a few hard stares. Ever since Sept. 7, 2010, when a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese coast-guard vessels near the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), seafaring Okinawans have been spooked. "Only a few boats still dare go as far as Senkaku," says fisherman Soichi Maezato. "We're more careful now."
Lying halfway between mainland Japan and China, the Japanese island of Okinawa is caught in a power struggle. For the past few years, China has been challenging U.S. naval dominance in the East and South China Seas, asserting claims to islets and waterways from Japan to Vietnam, harassing vessels in disputed waters and disrupting exploration in areas believed to be rich in oil and gas. "Okinawa and Taiwan are in the front line of China projecting its power," says Thomas Wilkins, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. "This is just the beginning."
Beijing's maneuvers pose a new security concern for leaders of countries whose economies are ever more entwined with China's, even if they have more in common politically with the U.S. They grow unsettled by the ease with which trouble between the two major powers flares up, as recent diplomatic snarls over Chinese blind activist Chen Guangcheng show.
In what it calls a "pivot to Asia," the Obama Administration has spent the past year strengthening regional military ties in tacit counterbalance to China's muscle flexing. Last month, the first of up to 2,500 Marines to be deployed in northern Australia arrived in Darwin, nearly 2,000 personnel stationed on Okinawa participated in joint military exercises in the Philippines, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda went to Washington to meet President Obama and beef up security ties.
"Every country wants a U.S. military presence in Asia," says Masaaki Gabe, director of the International Institute for Okinawan Studies in the island's capital, Naha. "But they don't want the U.S. in their backyard. So where, then, is the backyard?"
The answer would appear to be Okinawa. There are over 30 U.S. military facilities crammed onto the island today more than 70% of the U.S. bases in Japan. (The recent agreement to move 9,000 Marines off Okinawa won't offer much relief.) Locals are fed up with the space the Americans use, the noise military aircraft make and the social disruption that comes with a large population of young foreign males. In the 1990s, a string of fatal traffic accidents and violent crimes involving U.S. service members, including the brutal gang rape of a local girl in '95, generated widespread protests and, ultimately, led to a 2006 U.S.-Japan agreement designed to reduce the bases' impact on civilians. A crucial part of the plan is the relocation of Futenma Marine Air Station. It lies in the middle of a busy residential area, Ginowan City, and dramatizes the cheek-by-jowl proximity of the U.S. and local populations. Residents complain about incessant noise pollution. After a helicopter crashed on a nearby university campus in 2004 (fortunately causing no civilian injuries), they also worry about the possibility of catastrophic accidents.
Granted, Americans living on Okinawa make an economic contribution 5.3% of local revenue comes from the U.S. military but Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan and has the nation's highest unemployment. Some say the subsidies the island gets from Tokyo for hosting the bases have instilled a culture of dependence. Gabe calls them "a kind of poison, a drug." Many businesses, from bars to furniture stores, rely almost entirely on U.S. personnel and their families. And the bases still employ 9,000 locals. "There's no one company that could hire 9,000 people," says Masaharu Shimanaka, a union leader. Removing the bases, he says, can only come when Okinawa "has found a way to be independent economically."
China's growing might is making other locals more willing to accept a U.S. presence, however disruptive it may seem. At a bento shop in Ginowan City, the scream of incoming aircraft constantly drowns out the sounds of cooking and conversation. "It's scary being so close to the base," admits owner Genji Sunakawa. But the alternative might be scarier. "China is expanding," he says. "We need to start worrying about threats coming from outside."