Escalating tensions between China and the Trump White House all but ensures that Okinawa’s years-long effort to oust American forces from the island will likely fall on deaf ears inside the new administration.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, in his first official diplomatic trip as Pentagon chief, vowed to maintain a strong U.S. presence in Asia to counter threats posed by an increasingly aggressive China and a belligerent North Korea.
That stance could dampen efforts by local leaders in Okinawa, which is home to thousands of U.S. service members, to force Tokyo to relocate the American forces.
During his visits to South Korea and Japan, Mr. Mattis sought to reassure allies that the Trump administration has no plans to dial back the American presence in the Pacific.
On the campaign trail last year, then-candidate Donald Trump suggested that American allies in Europe and Asia need to do more financially and militarily to ensure their own regional defense, rather than depending on Washington. Mr. Trump doubled down on that notion during the election, suggesting that Seoul, Tokyo and others might be better served by developing their own nuclear weapons to deter the North Korean threat.
But with Mr. Trump now in the Oval Office, Mr. Mattis made clear the new administration’s dedication to alliances in the Pacific.
The Pentagon chief’s week-long trip to Asia was part of an effort to “lay the foundation for [allies] to do much more together,” he said during a press conference with Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada.
Ms. Inada shot back during the conference at Trump administration claims that Tokyo is not carrying its weight financially.
“The agreement between the two countries on appropriate burden sharing is happening,” she said.
Both defense leaders vowed “to increase interoperability between our forces and to bolster Japan’s capabilities from peacetime to contingency if needed,” Mr. Mattis said Friday in Tokyo.
Hammering that point home, Mr. Mattis also said Washington recognizes Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands, a chain of islands in the South China Sea that Beijing also claims.
“The United States opposes any unilateral action to attempt to overthrow Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands,” Mr. Mattis said. In response, Chief Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Pentagon chief’s comments were “a product of the Cold War [mentality] which should not impair territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights” of China’s claims to the islands.
The movement to reduce the American presence in Okinawa, led by Governor Takeshi Onaga, contends the sprawling U.S. military facilities tie up land that could be developed into factories, warehouses or other facilities. “There is a lot of [economic] demand coming into Okinawa,” the governor said.
Local leaders also say the military facilities pose security and environmental concerns.
On Friday, Mr. Mattis weighed in, saying the U.S. is reducing its “footprint on Okinawa, while maintaining the capabilities needed to keep Japan and the region secure.”
The main U.S. military facility in Okinawa, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, is being relocated to a less populated area on the island. As part of the move to Henoko Bay, Pentagon officials have agreed to temporarily relocate a number of Marines assigned to Futenma to American bases in Guam.