Why US bases make Okinawa, Guam nuclear 'targets'

Amid North Korea-US tensions, Asia-Pacific communities hosting US bases see military presence as making them a target.

by

    Lihue, Hawaii - The frequency of activity has increased but the pattern remains predictable: a defiant North Korean missile test followed by provocative war games, then another missile launch, more angry threats and warnings, followed by counter-threats and new sanctions, and now a sixth nuclear test and more severe warnings and accusations.

    In this geopolitical tit-for-tat, Asia-Pacific communities that host US military bases watch cautiously as fiery rhetoric pushes the two nuclear-armed adversaries ever-closer to what would be a catastrophic war.

    The island of Guam came into sharp focus in August when North Korea announced plans to fire four Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles near the US territory following President Donald Trump's threat to unleash "fire and fury like the world has never seen" against North Korea.

    Guam's Pacific Daily News reported that a missile launched from North Korea could reach Guam and its more than 160,000 US citizens in just 14 minutes.

    As Guam residents were being advised how to prepare for a possible nuclear strike, President Trump cheerfully assured Guam's governor that the extra media attention would boost the island's tourism industry.

    "You've become extremely famous all over the world," Trump said, promising the US territory's governor that tourism would increase "tenfold with the expenditure of no money."

    "Like a spear into battle"

    But on an island labelled with the tagline "Where America's Day Begins," many of its residents long for the day when American militarism ends.

    "The US military likes to couch their activities in solely defensive metaphors," says Michael Lujan Bevacqua, a Chamorro studies professor at the University of Guam. "The reference to Guam as 'the tip of the spear'," he says, "offers a sliver of truth."

    Bevacqua argues that like other empires, the US describes its foreign presence as a source of order and safety, "never the destabilising force … even if it takes land and resources, even if it poisons the earth, even if it depresses or constricts the local economy."

    The US military likes to couch their activities in solely defensive metaphors.

    Michael Lujan Bevacqua, University of Guam

    The US military presence can be characterised as a shield with a giant target on it, Bevacqua suggests. In Guam, it is "really the source of the danger just as much as a source of defence".

    As a US possession (non-self governing territory) without voting rights, Guam will be "dragged along like a spear into battle," Bevacqua notes. "Whether the spear loves battle or would prefer peace is irrelevant, as our purpose is to be something used in a fight and little more."

    Michael Lujan Bevacqua uses a map to show where US bases on Guam are located. The military occupies nearly one-third of the island [Jon Letman]

    Vivian Dames, a retired faculty member of the University of Guam, says: "All of these islands in Micronesia, regardless of political status, have some sort of political affiliation with the United States because of the US' long-standing strategic interest in this region and they all serve the function of being the westernmost, forward defence for the United States."

    Dames is referring to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands around 200km north of Guam and the vast sweep of ocean where the military conducts year-round training and live-fire testing and which the military seeks to expand to an area larger than much of the western United States.

    "While these islands, especially the Marianas, are strategically very important to the US," Dames says, "most Americans know very little about us and the ongoing effects of American militarism."

    A short drive from the University of Guam, Andersen Air Force Base is the staging grounds for a continuous bomber presence that includes B1-B bombers and B2 Spirit bombers which are capable of carrying B61 tactical nuclear weapons and the B83, a thermonuclear weapon 60 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

    Increasingly, bombers based at Andersen conduct precision strike exercises and in July the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron deployed to Guam from South Dakota, arming the island with a pre-emptive attack force capable of an offensive attack.

    Guam also has a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile battery, Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station and an 18,000 acre Naval Ordnance Annex. Naval Base Guam is the home port for fast attack nuclear and non-nuclear submarines.

    Beyond this sign sits Anderson Air Force Base on Guam's northernmost point Litekyan (Ritidian). The US military plans to build a live-fire traning range complex in the area on land many indigenous Chamorro people consider sacred [Jon Letman/Al Jazeera]

    Guam is not the only place

    From the US military's perspective, Guam is essential to maintaining a "ready to fight tonight" capability, but to North Korea, this much firepower from a hostile adversary represents a lethal threat.

    In August, as tensions threatened to boil over, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Guam where he said: "The North Korean missile capability can point in many directions. So, Guam is not the only place that would be under threat."

    This stark reality is all too well known across the Asia-Pacific region where many communities host US bases. Between Guam and North Korea, the US has over 180 military bases, installations and more than 90,000 troops who train alongside their allies Japan and South Korea which represent the eighth and 10th largest global military expenditures.

    In South Korea, the US is consolidating its bases but will also soon claim the largest overseas US military base in Pyeongtaek, 64km south of Seoul. Although South Korea arguably faces the most imminent threat from North Korea, many South Koreans await the day when the US will finally leave. More than six decades after an armistice halted the 1950-53 Korean War, longtime peace activist retired Catholic priest Father Mun Jeong-hyeon asks: "Why Korea was divided? Why is the USA stationed in this country for a long time?"

    Read more about US bases in South Korea and the fraught relations between locals and troops: Pyeongtaek - A US base, Americana in rural South Korea

    Satoko Norimatsu, an editor at Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus and co-author of Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, says: "Of course, US bases in Japan pose a threat to people and the environment around them."

    She's referring to a nationwide network of more than 100 US bases that run the length of the country, with the greatest concentration in Okinawa. "North Korea understandably declared US bases in Japan would be their target," she says. 

    Norimatsu stresses the importance of viewing local demilitarisation movements like those in Okinawa, Guam and elsewhere in a larger context and says there's a need for multinational, multilingual efforts against US militarism across the region.

    Demonstrators stage daily sit-ins outside Camp Schwab, a US Marine Corps Base in northern Okinawa where the US and Japan are forcibly building a new aircraft landing facility on reclaimed land at Cape Henoko despite lawsuits, demonstrations and international protests. Photograph taken in June, 2015 [Jon Letman/Al Jazeera] 

    Okinawa - 'Keystone of the Pacific'

    In a 1956 US Army propaganda film, the narrator states: "To exploit Okinawa's strategic location, major commands were moved here a few years ago from Japan. This has created a fluid force poised to move anywhere at a moment's notice. The defence of the island is of primary concern. Tactical training never stops."

    Seventy-two years after the Battle of Okinawa in which one-quarter to one-third of the civilian population was killed, roughly half of the 55,800 US forces in Japanremain stationed in Okinawa.

    With the large concentration of US military bases, Okinawa is a perfect target for foreign military aggression.

    Hideki Yoshikawa, director of Okinawa Environmental Justice Project

    In 1972, the US relinquished direct military control of Okinawa to Japan but still operates over 30 military installations and continues to build more by force. Global sociology Professor Kosuzu Abe of the University of the Ryukyus describes the continued US presence in Okinawa as "too large, too long and too dangerous".

    Tens of thousands of colorful origami folded paper cranes hang on a memorial at the Himeyuri Peace Museum honouring students who were killed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The bitter memories of war have fuelled a passionate anti-military sentiment on this island in southernmost Japan. Photograph taken in June, 2015 [Jon Letman/Al Jazeera]

    "Accepting a foreign military for such a long period ruins the health of the local economy and our community," says Abe, who teaches at a university campus where US military aircraft regularly fly overhead.

    Besides the threat of living among dozens of military bases, Okinawans face the danger of external attack in the event of war. Hideki Yoshikawa, director of Okinawa Environmental Justice Project, insists US bases don't protect his home island.

    "With the large concentration of US military bases, Okinawa is a perfect target for foreign military aggression," he says. Yoshikawa points out that because US installations built surrounded by densely populated Okinawan cities, "any aggression directed at US military bases in Okinawa would have spillover effects on our civilian population."

    Yoshikawa imagines a future Okinawa free of US bases in which his people could pursue a UN-sanctioned international non-military zone, a concept backed by many base opponents.

    Read about the Okinawans standing against a US military base

    Living in a state of 'strategic denial'

    The danger of being used by the US military is tragically familiar to the people of the Marshall Islands where the US tested 67 nuclear bombs between 1946-1958, leaving behind a legacy of sickness, death and forced displacement. Today, the US continues to test offensive weapons in the Marshall Islands, using Kwajalein Atoll as a target for unarmed Minuteman III ICBMs.

    In addition to missile and rocket testing from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein, the US claims the right of "strategic denial"  which gives it exclusive military control over more than half a million square miles of air, land and sea between Hawaii and Guam as provision of compacts of free association between the US and three Micronesian nations. 

    Desmond Doulatram, a representative of an NGO called Radiation Exposure Awareness Crusaders for Humanity - Marshall Islands (REACH-MI) says: "One can rightfully argue that Kwajalein is also becoming a huge liability … the presence alone … puts the Marshall Islands at a huge disadvantage given its nuclear and environmental-related activism."

    Doulatram quotes the first Marshallese President Amata Kabua who said: "When you grow up with your brother and he's a lot bigger than you and he slaps you … what can you do?"

    Hosting the US base and weapons tests is part of a compromise that the Marshall Islands have accepted for better or worse. Currently, the US pays just over $21 million annually to local land owners for the lease of Kwajalein Atoll that runs through 2066 (with the option to extend until 2086).

    Known as a large ocean state, the Republic of the Marshall Islands has just 181 square kilometres of land but nearly two million square kilometres of sea. Forced relocation and demographic shifts after World War II have made crowding and urbanisation a problem in the low-lying Micronesian nation. Here, in downtown Majuro, the capital, the living and the dead vie for space [Jon Letman/Al Jazeera]

    Learn more about how Marshall Islanders took world nuclear powers to the International Court of Justice for health damage caused by nuclear tests conducted before 1958

    Pearl Harbor is still armed

    A testament to the legacy of nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands, the US Department of Energy maintains a whole-body counting facility in Majuro for measuring high-energy gamma-emitting radionuclides like cesium-137 in people exposed to areas polluted by past US tests [Jon Letman/Al Jazeera]

    On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, a short drive from Pearl Harbor, Camp HM Smith is home to US Pacific Command which oversees all US military operations in East Asia and the Pacific within its self-proclaimed Area of Responsibility.

    In July, Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency released a public message announcing preparations for the possibility of a nuclear attack. An ICBM launched from North Korea is believed to be able to reach Hawaii in just 20 minutes.

    The notion that small island nations have no choice but to stay dependent on the US military for economic survival is the same logic of an abuser telling a woman she has no choice but to stay in a violent relationship.

    Kim Compoc, University of Hawaii

    Kim Compoc, a lecturer with the Departments of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii, says Hawaii's large military presence makes the islands more vulnerable and, because of their proximity to Asia, a more plausible target than the continental US.

    Compoc rejects the argument that Hawaii must rely on the military. "The notion that small island nations have no choice but to stay dependent on the US military for economic survival is the same logic of an abuser telling a woman she has no choice but to stay in a violent relationship," she says. 

    In June, Compoc was part of a delegation from Hawaii which travelled to Okinawa for the ninth gathering of the International Women's Network Against Militarism to counter preparations for war and build solidarity. "It was very moving to speak about Hawaiian sovereignty there and have Okinawans hold their fists up in solidarity," Compoc says.

    Building this kind of solidarity across cultures, languages and national identities is at the heart of Kyle Kajihiro's work as a board member of Hawaii Peace and Justice. "The protection of our islands, whether Hawaii, Guam, or Okinawa, is not the primary purpose of US bases. The US uses our islands as military platforms and command centres to launch attacks and wage wars in other parts of the world," Kajihiro says.

    Kajihiro points out that prior to the 1893 US overthrow of what had been the independent Kingdom of Hawaii, its leaders had anticipated the danger of being drawn into a war if Hawaii was allied with a large military power. The creation of an alliance of Pacific Island states that those leaders sought lives on today in the desire for a pan-Pacific alliance as the threat of war looms large across the region.

    Recalling historical attacks and battles from Guam and Okinawa to Kwajalein and Pearl Harbor, Kajihiro says, "when the US militarises our islands ... we become targets."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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