The Great Wall of Democracy


Column: China’s drive to the Western Pacific

OKINAWA—I’ve had to wait on the tarmac for planes ahead of mine to take off before, but never F-15s. Naha airport here shares a runway with Japan’s Air Self Defense Forces, leading to delays whenever Japanese fighters scramble to counter Chinese incursions into the airspace above the Senkaku Island Chain in the East China Sea. The pace of such incursions has accelerated over the last half decade. The Japanese scrambled a high of 1,168 times in 2016, mostly in response to Chinese activity. The sight of active afterburners on a U.S. commercial runway would be shocking. In Okinawa, it’s everyday life.

More than 1 million Okinawans share the southernmost prefecture of Japan with some 25,000 U.S. air, ground, naval, and marine forces. More than half of U.S. bases in Japan are located within these 463 square miles. The crowded space has long been a site of tension. A brutal crime committed against a local girl by American soldiers in 1996 precipitated negotiations between the United States and Japan over the consolidation and relocation of our forces.

The process has been delayed by local and national Japanese politics. Opposition to the expansion of Camp Schwab in the less densely populated northern part of the island to replace Futenma airbase became a rallying cry for opposition lawmakers. The prefectural governor, Denny Tamaki, was elected on an anti-expansion platform last October. Tamaki defeated the candidate backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party by a surprisingly large margin. His father was a U.S. Marine.

The national interests of the United States, Japan, and China meet in Okinawa. The island has been essential to the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Asia since World War II. The base is the keystone of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Our presence signifies America’s guarantee of Japanese security and helps sustain the economy of Japan’s poorest prefecture.

Okinawa is the gateway to mainland Asia for the United States and Japan. It is for the same reason that China views Okinawa as an obstacle. Chinese vessels must pass through the Miyako Strait south of Okinawa to reach the blue waters of the Philippine Sea and, from there, the “second island chain” encompassing the Mariana Islands, Guam, Palau, and Borneo. (The third island chain includes Hawaii.)

Rising political, diplomatic, economic, and military tensions between the United States and China have led many analysts to conclude that the two powers are beginning a “second Cold War.” Kunihiko Miyake of the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo says President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are making the opening bids in a conflict for hegemony over the western Pacific that will last decades. Whoever first loses patience, in his view, will also lose control of the sea lines of communication essential to the economy and security of the world’s most populous region. Thus the debate in Washington has been over how best to contain China. From the perspective of China and Japan, however, China is already contained. Geography locks it in.

Tilt a map of the region 90 degrees counter-clockwise, and you see that the Sea of Japan and the East and South China Seas are not much different from great lakes. They are cordoned off by an archipelago that stretches from Japan’s Hokkaido Island through the Senakakus and Taiwan, down to the Paracel and Spratly Islands as well as to the Philippines and Malaysia. These islands might be called the Great Wall of Democracy. They limit the force projection capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And their governments present an ideological alternative to the authoritarianism of the Communist Party.