US Reportedly Eyes Island Near Taiwan As Military Base
- Patrick Goodenough Pacific Rim Bureau Chief
- 2004 10 Oct
The Japanese island of Shimoji-shima boasts a 10,000-foot runway, built decades ago for civilian airline flight training. It is long enough for combat-armed F-15C fighter planes to use safely.
The island's location would bring U.S. aircraft considerably closer in the event of a future conflict between China and Taiwan.
While there has been no confirmation of any plans, Japan's NHK broadcaster said on its website Thursday that the U.S. had proposed to temporarily move the Marine Air Station based at Futenma on Okinawa to Shimoji.
The presence of the base - and other U.S. military bases - on Okinawa long has been controversial, and Tokyo has been pressing for the number of troops there to be reduced substantially as part of the U.S. global reevaluation of force posture.
U.S. and Japanese officials have been discussing changes to the deployment of the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan, half of whom are based on Okinawa.
At an Asia-Europe leaders' meeting in Hanoi last week, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said some U.S. troops on Okinawa could be relocated to bases outside of Japan, and some could be moved elsewhere within Japan.
Koizumi and President Bush discussed the planned realignment of troops during a meeting in New York last month.
Tensions on Okinawa rose again last August when a Futenma-based U.S. Marine Sea Stallion helicopter crashed onto a nearby university campus. No-one was hurt, but the accident sparked new protests.
The U.S. agreed in 1996 to move the Futenma base within five to seven years, but alternatives have been hard to come by. One proposal has been to build an artificial offshore base about 40 miles away from the current location, but that has also drawn local protests.
NHK said the government was reserving judgment on the Shimoji proposal, with some officials worried that it would spark local opposition on the small island while others considered it "a feasible idea."
A Taiwanese online news site, ET Today, reported Wednesday that Japan and the U.S. had recently discussed the possibility of turning the island into a "cooperative security outpost."
The report said Tokyo had already decided to station Japanese F-15C fighter jet units on the island, which is just four square miles in area.
"The U.S. has shown interest in the strategic position of the island and the move is clearly directed at China," ET Today said.
Japan's Kyodo news agency last month cited unnamed sources as saying the U.S. had asked Japan to open the civilian runway at Shimoji for joint drills involving U.S. and Japanese planes.
Quid pro quo
Although moving the Marines base to Shimoji would reduce tensions on Okinawa, some Japanese are likely to be equally unhappy about the move.
Earlier this year, when Marine helicopters used Shimoji as a refueling stop on their way to and from military exercises in the Philippines, local government officials complained and small groups of protestors demonstrated near the runway.
The local government's military affairs office director, Choki Kuba, was quoted as citing a government promise in 1971 that Shimoji airport would not be used for military purposes.
The Marine Corps said at the time that refueling was "an operational necessity," given the helicopters' range.
In 2001, the Rand Corporation published a report for the Pentagon on U.S. force posture strategy in Asia, which said that basing U.S. fighters on Shimoji "would be of great help were the U.S. military called on to support Taiwan in a conflict with mainland China."
It acknowledged that "this may be politically problematic in Japan," noting that the local government wanted to promote Shimoji and the other islands in the southern Ryukyu group as "ecologically-friendly vacation destinations."
The Rand study said one way of overcoming likely resistance would be to offer a quid pro quo.
"The removal or reduction of U.S. forces elsewhere in the islands, such as the withdrawal of the Marines from Okinawa, could be the currency with which Washington might pay for a foothold in the critical area surrounding the troubled waters of the Taiwan Strait."
The report pointed out the close proximity of Shimoji to Taiwan. By comparison, U.S. airbases on Okinawa are some 500 nautical miles (nm) away, those in South Korea are 800 nm miles away, and Guam is 1,500 nm away.
It would be "explosive and potentially unrealistic" for the U.S. to base forces on Taiwan itself, it said, because "the positioning of foreign forces on Taiwan is one of Beijing's often-stated conditions for initiating the use of force against the island."
When the report was published, the mayor of the neighboring island, Irabu, was quoted as saying that using a civilian airport so close to Taiwan for military purposes was tantamount to painting a large bulls-eye on the island.
One of the authors of the Rand study was Zalmay Khalilzad, an advisor to the National Security Council who is now U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
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