In early December I had the opportunity to join a delegation of American and Japanese analysts on a day trip to Miyako-jima, one of Japan’s Ryukyu islands.
While one’s typical mental map of Japan has difficulty imagining the archipelago stretching south beyond Okinawa, Miyako-jima and the 19 other islands that make up the 900 sq kilometer southern “Sakishima” portion of the Ryukyu’s pepper the waters of the East China Sea from Okinawa all the way to the coast of Taiwan.
Following the Second World War, the United States governed the Sakishima’s and the entire Ryukyu chain under the San Francisco Peace Treaty from 1945 to 1972. The Sakishimas, which include the Senkaku islands, are now governed as part of the Okinawa Prefecture. Along with Ishigaki-jima and Iriomote-jima, Miyako is one of the largest in this chain. Located 145 nautical miles from Okinawa, its population of roughly 50,000 includes fishermen, farmers, and a services industry that supports Miyako’s many vacation destinations. Despite its small population, the island is also home to two vibrant newspapers.
Our delegation (I tagged along as an observer), sponsored by the American Consulate in Okinawa, set out on December 4th for a day trip to Miyako to conduct a public panel discussion on U.S.-Japan alliance issues. We took the 40 minute flight from the Nahah airport in Okinawa to Miyako airport, arriving just before lunchtime. Before the panel we spent some time driving around the island and enjoyed an Okinawan meal featuring Miyakan noodles (slightly thicker than the average Japanese noodle as far as I could tell). The 2 hour panel – one of a series held in cities throughout Japan over the previous week – was the highlight of our day. As the first ever State Department-sponsored American delegation to Miyako, our group wasn’t sure what to expect. But to our pleasant surprise, at least 30 Miyakans showed up not just to listen but to challenge the panel with questions that everyone agreed were some of the most informed and probing that had been asked all week.
- What are some of the obstacles for strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance?
- During the Cold War West Germany asked for nuclear weapons to be deployed on its territory. Is the U.S. prepared to deploy nuclear weapons to Japan?
- The Senkaku’s are very important to Miyako, especially its fisherman. What can be done on this issue?
- The alliance seems to be one sided, where the U.S. gives and Japan gets. What can Japan do to change this?
- Miyakans recognize the importance of the Marines in Okinawa. What does the future hold for this issue?
- National interests are most important for a country. When China reaches it's peak will the U.S. forget Japan?
- Although most people support the military presence in Japan, is it necessary for good relations with the U.S. to build a new base in Okinawa?
While brief, our afternoon in Miyako was a unique opportunity to see the island and meet with its engaging inhabitants. It was striking how at once Miyako was a paradise of resorts and beaches, seemingly far removed from the rest of the world, while simultaneously a geographic fault line whose position ensured it would be part of the Asia-Pacific strategic question in the decades ahead. Its residents appeared aware of their predicament in so much as it stood to affect their daily lives (fisherman, for instance). Recent PLAN exercises in the Miyako strait in April 2010 and the fallout from the Senkaku incident in September have also reinforced the rising danger of China’s military presence and the significance of the U.S.-Japan alliance. With Ground Self-Defense Force troops already scheduled to be deployed to the small southern island of Yonaguni, I was told in Okinawa that mayors from both Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima had eagerly requested the presence of more GSDF troops on their islands as well.
Since the Cold War little has been written on the strategic significance of the Ryukyu’s. save two articles James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara published on the island chain’s significance for China for the Jamestown Foundation this past summer.
Holmes and Yoshihara summarize the Ryukyu’s place in Chinese thinking as follows:
As China continues its ascent to great sea power, Chinese strategists increasingly view Asia’s complex maritime geography as a barrier to their nation’s rightful maritime ambitions. A glance at the map of the Western Pacific rim shows that PLAN formations cannot reach the Pacific high seas—whether to menace the east coast of Taiwan or for some other purpose—without passing through the islands that enclose the Chinese coastline. Japanese territories comprise the northern arc of this lengthy island chain. Geography, therefore, has situated two great seafaring nations in close quarters, leaving one astride the other’s access to the maritime commons. China cannot fulfill its maritime destiny without breaching this natural barrier.
Mahan wrote how the importance of “portions of the earth’s surface, and their consequent interest to mankind, differ from time to time.” The strategic value of any position, he contended, depends upon its situation (with reference to sea lines), strength, (inherent or acquired) and resources (natural or stored). Whereby strength and resources can be accumulated, a locations situation cannot be changed. Indeed, while an island long known in Japan and South East Asia for its beauty and warm weather, the situation of Miyako-jima and the greater Ryukyu chain all but guarantee its “consequent interest” to Japan, China, the United States and broader maritime Asia.
As for Miyako’s military strength, it is the home to a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force radar station (pictured below) and a new, state-of-the-art signal intelligence facility. Miyako has hosted Japan Ground Self-Defense Force training missions in the past and Air Self-Defense Force exercises from Okinawa occasionally utilize a small runway on the tiny coastal island of Irabu-jima. Japan’s new National Defense Program Guidelines also further shifted the nations' defense focus to the Ryukyus. Japan plans to decrease its GSDF end strength and reduce the number of tanks in its arsenal, while increasing its submarine fleet from 16 to 22, and procuring more fighters, air defense systems, and surface-to-ship missiles to defend the southern islands.
While Senkaku dominates the headlines and much of the analytical debates over Japan-China relations, it is but one in a series of islands whose situation places it astride Taiwan and as an archipelagic border along the northern portion of China’s first island chain. Recently identified as a “defense vacuum” by the Ministry of Defense, Miyako-jima, along with Ishigaki-jima and Iriomote-jima and the other smaller islands of the Sakishimas are poised to gain a new importance in Japanese and alliance defense planning.